Allies Who Inspire Us
We are kicking off a new interview series called Allies Who Inspire Us. We believe the tech industry is not only lacking female role models, but also allies who are outspoken about driving efforts around diversity. Therefore we will occassionally feature an ally who is an inspiring advocate for diversity in tech and can serve as a role model for other allies – or for those who want to become allies.
The Allies Who Inspire Us series starts with our very own advisory board member Santiago Erroz Ferrer who is a Data Scientist Technical Lead at Swiss International Air Lines. Santi, short for Santiago, has been promoting and advocating for more diversity in tech ever since he moved to Switzerland. At ETH, where he did a postdoc in Astrophysics, he experienced the shockingly low number of women and the conditions they were facing in his department. Learn about Santi’s path into tech and get invaluable advice on how to be a strong ally for women and minorities in tech.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
My name is Santi and I am currently a Data Scientist Technical Lead at Swiss International Air Lines. I support projects technically and I am also mentoring new employees. Through my work, I aim to inspire and foster the use of data and new technologies in my team and also in the whole department. For that, I am researching and analyzing how new technologies and the use of data can bring a return of investment through data-driven decisions.
From my education you wouldn’t be able to guess my current job. I started my education in Astrophysics and finished a masters degree and a PhD in this field. Astronomy is a topic I am very passionate about. I came to Switzerland for a postdoc position at ETH Zurich in Astrophysics and worked here as a researcher for 3 years.
During my postdoc, I realized that I wanted to focus more on tech than on research. I did a bootcamp on data science because I wanted to develop more on the programming side. I had some coding experience from my PhD, but wanted to learn modern technologies, how to write efficient algorithms, how to create deep learning models and so on.
After the postdoc, I started to work as a consultant in data science at a company that does risk analysis. In 2019, I started working at Swiss International Air Lines in the role of a Data Scientist. In this role I have been developing data science models, statistical analysis, starting with marketing data, and now with a focus on data transformation and strategy. For two months I am in my current role as a Technical Lead in Data Science.
I originally grew up in Pamplona, in the North of Spain. I left home at the age of 18 to study Physics in Zaragoza, then I moved to Tenerife in the middle of my bachelors to pursue my love for astrophysics. In the Canary Islands, the quality of the sky is much better because the volcanic islands are peaky, and the atmosphere there does not affect the observations as much. There you have the best sky to observe in Europe, also because of the climate and pressure level. And the university there has quite a good reputation, it’s one of the best places to obtain a degree in Astrophysics.
What or who inspired you to get into tech?
Research as you may know is very vocational. Although I loved the field of Astrophysics, I was missing social interactions and real responsibility on projects. Topic-wise I wanted to get “closer to Earth”. I wanted to do something that has a real impact on society that I could observe in daily life – instead of observing far-away stars.
This eventually inspired me to move from research to tech, specifically to data science. I love getting insights from data by using my programming skills, to uncover information that we cannot get from simply looking at the data. With technologies such as machine learning you can go beyond what the naked eye can see in data.
I also really enjoy expanding my knowledge to other people. I am passionate about fostering the use of data and making people understand what data is and what it has to say. Data can help companies make data-driven decisions instead of decisions based on gut feelings. Already at university, I got a chance to be a teaching assistant, supporting the students during experiments, helping them analyze data, writing reports and so on. And I wanted to do more of this knowledge sharing.
I felt that working in tech will allow me to advocate for the use of modern technology and the use of data. Beyond that, I am also passionate about outreach and have given public talks about astronomy, both for children and adults, e.g. at the Spanish consulate. I always knew that I wanted to do more of that.
Topic-wise I wanted to get “closer to Earth”. I wanted to do something that has a real impact on society that I could observe in daily life – instead of observing far-away stars.
What do you like about working in tech?
I really like to educate myself on new technologies and then make use of them. I like to go beyond the already established tools and use cases and explore new horizons, going the extra mile. In the tech industry you constantly get something new, it’s a very dynamic field.
One year you learn about a methodology, next year it’s already improved. The big tech companies are developing many innovative tools that people can make use of. The companies do deep research and are advancing the technology. It’s not set in stone, it’s alive, it’s evolving and changing. And I really like that about the tech industry.
When was the first time you were exposed to the topic of diversity in tech? What does it mean to you personally?
The first time I was exposed to the topic of diversity was when I was in Switzerland. It was in my postdoc at ETH when I realized the differences between male and female. I was shocked by the small number of women here in Switzerland that studied and researched Astrophysics and Physics in general. In Spain it was quite balanced in terms of numbers.
In my team, there were a couple of people that were fostering diversity actively. We started a group with the goal to make sure that we are gender equal regarding numbers, but also to promote diversity of cultures, sexual orientation, religion, and so on.
I was not only shocked about the low number of women in the department, but also that the women that were there were often kept small and were pushed down by men. Witnessing this affected me personally, as I am also part of a minority as a member of the LGBTQ community.
I never felt actively discriminated against, but I dislike it when groups are not balanced. And I don’t like seeing women not being treated equally, so I started to become actively involved in promoting diversity and creating awareness.
I was not only shocked about the low number of women in the department, but also that the women that were there were often kept small and were pushed down by men.
What are concrete actions that you are taking to help increase diversity in tech? What impacts are you seeing from these actions?
I choose to intervene when I witness inequality. I choose to be part of groups and communities that foster diversity. I always supported activities of student organizations that foster diversity at ETH Zurich and are trying to bring more women into STEM. I also aim to frequently seek out conversations with female role models that have been successful in their careers to learn about their stories. And I am actively supporting GIrls in Tech Switzerland as a member of the advisory board.
Everyone around me knows that I push for diversity – always. At my current job, whenever we create materials that go out to the public, like slides or marketing materials, I make sure we have equal representation.
I also have a strong sense of inclusive language and I am very sensitive to how people say things. Language is the first thing we should take care of because it matters how we say things. I always try to support people in understanding how they speak. I have called out colleagues after casual, but inappropriate and gender biased comments, regardless whether they are head of department or at lower levels.
People understand what they’re doing wrong but not everybody takes it positively. Some people are uncomfortable being next to me because they know I will remind them. Not everybody wants to learn what they’re doing wrong.
I am not afraid to speak up and I am not afraid of the consequences because I want people to understand and notice when they are potentially hurting others with their use of language. It’s about creating awareness. Inclusive language is something we have to learn – or more unlearn what we’ve been conditioned to believe is accepted but is indeed inappropriate language.
When recruiting for new members on the team, I will always make sure that female candidates are being considered, and that they are not just evaluated based on what they have done so far but also what their potential for the future is.
I try to recruit a gender equal and diverse team. I aimed for the same thing when I was evaluating students as a postdoc. ETH Zurich is doing a good job to make reviewers not know or care about gender which helps against unconscious bias.
Do you have any strong female role models in your life? What did you learn from them?
I’ve had strong female role models in my life that were strong characters, not because they are women, but because they are sure of what they do. My grandmother was one of the first women in Spain to get a PhD. One of her professors told her that in order to be successful she wouldn’t be able to have kids.
My grandmother was a university professor and had kids as well, so she showed everyone that it was possible. She once gave a talk at an educational conference about being a professional woman and having children as well. One man in the audience accused her that she wasn’t in fact able to do both things because she was now at the conference while her children were alone at home. She answered the man that she wouldn’t even allow her husband to say something like this, so she would not allow him to say it either, which resulted in the audience clapping and cheering her on.
My mother also had a tremendous impact on me. At home, my sisters and I had to do the same chores, gender simply did not apply. That was a huge difference to my grandmother’s generation where parents made clear differences. In the old times, the girls stayed at home to cook, the boys were outside to help with more hands-on work. My mother was my first role model, she never cared about gender and made no difference between me and my sisters.
I also have a female friend that taught me a lot about diversity and empowering myself. Being part of a minority, she mentored me and taught me how to empower myself. She taught me that I deserved the same as everyone else and to never feel undermined. When you’re discriminated against, you have to try to answer strongly, to show a strong personality.
My friend taught me how to be strong, believe in myself and how to react to discrimination. She also taught me about inclusive language, that it is important how we say things. What you are saying and how you are saying it matters. For example, I learned to say “they” and “them” to include all genders already years before it was common practice.
The last female role model that comes to mind is my professor at ETH. She was always pushing for the group to fight for more equal rights. She aimed to empower women so they didn’t feel inferior next to men. She encouraged them to speak up and to learn to defend themselves in a male dominated environment. Diversity and gender equality was also important to her when recruiting researchers and PhD candidates.
I am not afraid to speak up and I am not afraid of the consequences because I want people to understand and notice when they are potentially hurting others with their use of language.
What’s your advice for any allies who want to contribute to more equal opportunities for all in tech?
Observe and be sensitive. Be aware that there is an issue that needs improvement. Leave your bubble and observe daily actions, the way we speak, how we treat others, how we recruit, how we treat candidates.
We all have unconscious biases. We are brought up with wrong ideas about what women can do and what they cannot do. For me an ideal world would be a place where there are no differences between women and men, trans, or gay, or muslim, or anything. These things are simply not a topic of discussion.
My advice would be to be open and to start with small changes in your life. Reading this interview can be a first step to become more aware. Start to observe the way you speak, the way you treat others. Are you treating people differently based on gender or other characteristics – and if so why?
A more concrete action would be to empower those around you that are part of a minority, to help them to feel seen. Avoid gender-biased comments as best as you can. And don’t be afraid to tell others when they are making inappropriate comments.
We’d like to thank you Santi for your incredible support of Girls in Tech Switzerland and for being a role model for other allies. We are so proud and honored to have you onboard our mission. Thank you Santi for being an ally who inspires us! 💛
Author: Lisa Staehli