Nuria Oliver: "If the technology is made by men, it is for men"

The telecommunications engineer and former scientific director of Telefònica calls for more women in technical areas as the key to resolving the problems of the future

The engineer Nuria Oliver has just left her job at Telefònica
The engineer Nuria Oliver has just left her job at Telefònica

Telecommunications engineer, Nuria Oliver (Alicante, 1970), is cited for her articles over the past decade so many times that a Google search brings up more than 10,000 hits. And it is no surprise to discover that at the tender age of 24 she won the first National Spanish Prize for Telecommunications Engineers, which was followed by other awards, such as the TR100 prize (today the TR35) from the MIT Technology Review or the Distinguished Scientist award from the Association for Computing Machinery in the United States. Oliver also has experience working with Microsoft and, until two weeks ago, with Telefònica, where she was the scientific director.

She has now chosen to develop research in the area of Big Data For Social Good without forgetting her championing of women in the sphere of algorithms and numbers. Executive and scientist in equal parts, VIA Empresa spoke to her during the Women 360º Congress held on Thursday in Sant Cugat del Vallès, in which she contributed her technological viewpoint to the problems women face in the 21st century.

This interview is taking place in a congress about women, health and welfare. What role does a telecommunications engineer play here?
I have two or three different professional functions. On the one hand, I am a scientist, I publish in congresses, there is a very technical dimension to my work, and at the same time, as I came to Spain to create and lead a research group as scientific director, I also have an executive profile. Obviously, there are women executives in many fields but there are very few in technological positions in the technical field, not only in Spain but the West as a whole. It is very interesting to be here because there are so few executives in technology, in management positions in technology companies, with a technical background, who have studied engineering or IT.

And yet you are one of the IT research engineers most cited in Spain. Does that stick out because it is technology or because you are a woman?
I don't know, I have never been aware of my gender as a minority condition, despite it always having been that way. Until I became pregnant with my first child, I never understood why we should always be talking about women and men when in the end we are all people. However later, you obviously realise that there are unavoidable biological differences, at least for the moment, which mean our experiences are different. And it is also true that there are studies that show that there are differences because there are different hormones that lead to certain behaviours or capacities. Yet from a technical point of view and gender apart, it is true that I was the first Spanish person to get a doctorate from the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Technology Institute (MIT) and that I am the first Spanish person to win the Young Innovator prize... There are many things in which I was the first, but in there being a huge minority of women working in this field, more light is being shone on gender because the percentage of women who choose technical careers is going down and one of the reasons could be the fact that no visibility has been given to women who have chosen this professional path. Female adolescents, when they have to think about what they will be when they are older, do not have any example of a woman in mind and so associate these subjects with men, which has become the stereotype in films and other media. Any visual example, whether in films or series, is a man. The most famous people in IT, from Bill Gates and Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, are men, Americans, and profiles that are far from the reality of a girl living in any city in Spain.

Is there a lack of examples because there aren't any that are female or because we have not found them?
They do exist. Now the effort has to be to give them more visibility. Tuesday 11th October was Ada Lovelace Day, the first programmer in the world. It is now coming to light that there were many female programmers who helped put men on the moon, that there have been a great many female programmers that have contributed to the progress made in IT. The thing is that they often live in the shadows or they have not received the credit they deserve and now something is being done to try to do some justice to all these profiles. Today, there are efforts to give more visibility to the different female researchers in technical fields and I think that it is very important to overturn the stereotypes and provide examples to girls and boys so that they can choose from a wider range of options than they know of now, which currently for many is either doctor or teacher, the two professions they interact the most contact with.

Photo: Women 360º Congress

You call for a female view of techology. What role do you think women have to play in the technology revolution?
It is a fundamental role. The challenges we are faced with as humans, which are major challenges -such as global warming, the lack of resources, the ageing of the population, the prevalence of chronic illnesses...- cannot be faced without the help of technology and, in many cases, it is technology that we have still not invented and that someone will have to invent. It has been shown that different teams, in which there is a lot of diversity -in areas of expertise, in place of origin, of ways of thinking, but also in gender- many more innovative and creative solutions are attained and to resolve all these problems we will need more innovative and creative solutions. For the survival of our species, the role that women play in the technological sense will have to be major because right now there is not enough diversity in many areas of technology. I think that it is key.

What does that mean in practice?
That not only from a technical point of view, but also from the point of view of the user's experience –such as the services people use, and so on- ideas must also be more inclusive, without only a single orientation. Because in the end if it is technology made by men, in one way it will only be for men, while if the team is rich in diversity, normally the results are more attractive to more people.

What do we need to focus on to make this happen? Education, media...?
Multiple things because it is a very complex problem that needs to be tackled from many spheres. Education is fundamental and the media also play a very important role because, in the end, they are the ones who decide what is important and what isn't. On the social scale, the family environment is very often the key factor in whether a child chooses one path or another. And here it is very important that the older generation, siblings, uncles, and so on know what professional opportunities exist today and know what it means to be a telecommunications engineer or programmer, or what you can do after studying IT or what it means to be a researcher. In recent years I have been giving talks to teenagers in my free time to share my professional experience with them because I always think "Wow, if only someone had explained their story to me when I was at school, perhaps I would have had a clearer idea about what I wanted to do!" I left for the United States, which seems so far away... and I think that any adolescent can now think that is a possibility for them. For someone like me, from Alicante, to tell them that I have a doctorate from the best university in the world, brings it closer to them, makes it more viable and helps them to think that it is possible.

Photo: Women 360º Congress


You have worked for major companies, the latest being Telefònica. What role do large companies have in the 4.0 revolution and what role is there for startups and entrepreneurs?
From the point of view of technological innovation, the large companies due to their size have a series of characteristics of which not all are so good, such as for example, that in being a larger company it is less agile, more bureaucratic, with more complex decision making processes. Meanwhile a startup is much more agile and can totally change from one day to the next. Each has a different role to play but there is a lot of interaction between large companies and startups: they buy up startups, they invest in accelerators, as Telefònica did with Wayra, and so on, and I think that increasingly there is more collaboration and implementation of the concept of open innovation. There is an ecosystem of players in which all contribute because the reality is that technology advances very quickly and the important thing is to be able to innovate and contribute at this speed.
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