Women in Careers in the Steam World: From Dream to Reality

During the last few weeks, all the project partners had the opportunity to conduct interviews with women working in the STEAM field in their respective countries. In this article, we report the interview with Cristina D’Apollonio, an interior designer and toy designer, as well as a technology teacher at a secondary school in Florence, Italy. This interview seemed particularly relevant to us because of the very positive message it conveys to young girls entering the world of technology, highlighting the importance of not being discouraged by difficulties and preconceptions, but rather persevering and believing in their own potential, learning to look around and seize the various opportunities that arise. Just like Cristina did.

Can you briefly present yourself and your professional journey? What motivated you to pursue a career in this field?
My name is Cristina D’Apollonio, and I have a background in product and interior design, with a specialization in toy design. I naturally ventured into the world of STEAM, particularly in teaching these subjects to both students and educators. After various experiences as a designer, I decided to challenge myself as an educator in a social cooperative, where I designed activities and experiences for others. This experience led me to the world of education, where I became a Technology teacher. Being naturally curious and a hands-on learner, I gravitated towards the STEAM subjects, eventually becoming a trainer in this field. My thirst for knowledge and the desire to inspire others, especially young girls, motivated me to pursue a career in teaching and the STEAM field. I want to demonstrate that there are no limits for women in the world of technology and that facing challenges with determination, believing in one’s potential, and embracing opportunities are all possible.

As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry, what challenges have you faced during your career, and how have you overcome them?
It is true that the technology sector still predominantly consists of men, but in my field, which is related to education and teaching, many women are now stepping up. I haven’t had to face particularly challenging obstacles so far. We need to educate the younger generations not to fear getting involved in the field of technology and engineering, and also encourage girls to pursue STEAM disciplines.

What initiatives or programs do you believe are essential to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment in the ICT sector?
From the commitment of the United Nations to regional and national projects, there are many initiatives in this regard. Some of the main ones include Girls TechUp by Codemotions, Coding Girls by the Fondazione Mondo Digitale (in Italy), and MEET&CODE, which has promoted a section of projects specifically dedicated to girls in coding.

How do you manage to balance work and personal life in a demanding field like ICT? Do you have any strategies or advice for achieving a healthy work-life balance?
Certainly, this constantly evolving field can be complex with numerous events, fairs, contacts, products, devices, and educational kits. For now, I am managing well to balance this training aspect with classroom teaching since I don’t have children. However, I believe that, in the opposite case, it would be very challenging to reconcile family life and work. Some activities can undoubtedly be carried out online, but this still cannot replace the importance of physical interaction.

In which significant achievements or projects have you been involved in the ICT sector? How do you believe they have had a positive impact?
I participated in the MEET&CODE initiative for three editions, collaborating with the Sharing Europe APS Association. The first two events were conducted online, and the third one in person. It was rewarding to engage young girls in coding and tinkering STEAM projects.

What was your dream when you were younger or during your studies?
My dream was to be free to invent, experiment in all aspects, make mistakes, and work closely with people. For a while, I even considered opening my own space, perhaps a bookstore, as I am passionate about children’s books. I never opened the bookstore, but one of my most beautiful collaborations is with a bookstore in Florence, Nani Pittori. It is undoubtedly challenging, but I am happy to have managed to reconcile all my passions and to try to build my career day by day.

Can you share some advice or lessons you have learned from your experience that could benefit aspiring female professionals in the ICT sector?
I advise you to be open to the opportunities that life offers, not to fixate on a single goal, but to be flexible and ready for change and experimentation. The most beautiful surprises can come from the unexpected. From a practical perspective, I recommend looking around for courses, events, and workshops that can help you understand the sector and figure out which path to take. Moreover, these events are also beneficial for networking and exchanging opinions. In conclusion: always stay open-minded.

Are there any particular trends or emerging technologies in the ICT sector that you find exciting or believe will have a significant impact in the future?
I am very passionate about the field of 3D printing and robotics, which may not be entirely emerging technologies, but I find it fascinating to teach them to children and show them how these technologies can be useful in their daily lives. Additionally, the field of artificial intelligence also fascinates me. Familiarizing children with artificial intelligence is essential because those who are 5 years old today will spend most of their working lives in a world transformed by technology. I believe it’s crucial to adapt the school curriculum accordingly. We should not only think about how technology might replace certain jobs or activities, although that is a point to consider. More importantly, we should question how artificial intelligence can enhance
human learning and ensure that educators themselves lead the transformation by making demands on technology companies. We need to set aside fears and actively participate in the change, without forgetting the emotional, hands-on, and analog aspects that are important to accompany the entire learning journey.

Who are some of your role models or sources of inspiration in your national or international context? How have they influenced your career?
Certainly a woman who has inspired me is Margherita Hack, a historic female figure and a leading representative in the STEM world. She was a pioneer in her field, a symbol of redemption capable of inspiring entire generations, and a free thinker with universal values. A person dear and close to me who has been a source of inspiration is a colleague from the Toy Design advanced training course: Enrica Amplo – the robotic nanny. As a mechatronics engineer, she now works extensively in the STEAM field. When I was still completely unfamiliar with this sector, I listened to her stories with great curiosity.

What advice would you give to girls who want to work in this field?
Stay open and curious always, and don’t be frightened by the first obstacles. Instead, share your doubts and mistakes, work as a team. If possible, participate in training exchanges between schools, hackathons, summer schools, to approach STEAM subjects in a fun and dynamic way and be ready to take off!