I was raised as a child, not as a girl: An interview with UPU’s Sandrine Diffo

15.02.2019 - “It has always been difficult to study the hard sciences because girls were not supposed to become scientists,” says Sandrine Diffo, a quality assurance lead software developer at the Universal Postal Union’s (UPU) Postal Technology Centre. Sandrine studied in Cameroon and later received her Masters in France studying IT Security. Even in France, she recalls, there were only five girls among 40 students in her class. She sees this as further proof that there are far fewer girls pursuing science careers.

Acknowledging that she never felt blocked at any stage of her career, Sandrine does note that one of the main barrier’s for girls in Africa is people’s surprise at women wanting to work in the IT industry. “That always made me laugh because it is just a job.”

Questioned about her motivation for wanting to become a scientist, Sandrine says she was influenced by her eldest sister who was the only girl at a polytechnic in Cameroon and one of the best among many other science students. “I was interested in being an engineer and I picked the first education institution that accepted me. This is how I discovered ICT. If I went back in time, I would still make the same choice because it matches my personality and way of thinking perfectly.”

Sandrine also points to her parents as another catalyst. “I was lucky to have parents who believed you could achieve anything if you work hard for it. They taught my five brothers, four sisters and I to believe in ourselves. My father used to say, ‘I don’t have boys and girls. I have children.’”

UNESCO figures show that only 30 percent of researchers and developers worldwide are women. Asked why she thinks so few women pursue this path, the software developer sees a number of factors preventing girls embracing science.

“The most important one is how we raise our girls. We tend to convince them that there are things they cannot achieve and science is one of them. IT jobs are often regarded as unfeminine and therefore girls often grow up with the idea that they should find a more suitable career path,” she explains. “There should not be any reason to stop girls from being scientists,” Sandrine adds after pausing.  

Replying to a question on women in the STEM-related fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, Sandrine points to the great female scientists in history: physicist and chemist Marie Curie and NASA Astronaut Mae Jemison, among many others. “However, globally, people tend to believe women in STEM cannot be as good as men. That is stereotypical thinking, which is wrong because talent does not depend on gender,” says Sandrine.

She also contends that if you are able to contribute, then gender should not matter. “What really matters is your talent. Are you creative? Can you be innovative? You should be able to do what you are passionate about and the best way to achieve this is to work without bias. Brains do not have a gender.”

Challenged about solutions, Sandrine says we need to remove the barrier that “You cannot do this because you are a girl.” She feels girls need to believe they can do anything, and it does not matter what industry you choose so long as you feel passionate about it.

Of course, she notes, both girls and boys should be encouraged to chase their dreams. “We have to allow children to believe in themselves and to help them build confidence by encouraging them to try the subjects they prefer. Then from there, I am sure, more girls will be interested in science.”

On her own work, Sandrine explains that she works as project manager for the UPU’s quality of service programmes, which member countries use to measure the quality of their international postal exchanges and performance.

She adds that the team creates web-based applications for these programmes and that her dream is to have mobile apps for each of them. “I also take part in other activities like customer care, quality assurance and continuous improvement of IT processes. I have been at the UPU for eight years but it does not seem that long because of how interesting and diverse my work is.”

Returning to the question of gender, Sandrine calls for societies to value competence and knowledge, irrespective of gender. Everyone, she argues, must be given an equal chance to perform in their chosen field. “I am glad that I have passed to my daughter the same principle my father taught me: “Whatever your passion is, go as far as possible and make it perfect.”

(The above interview was undertaken to mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on 11 February.)

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  1. Dirk at 19.01.2016
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