International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Twins Ilse and Sofie are both FWO PhD fellows since 2019

On the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we had the chance to put some questions to these two special ladies. Both Ilse and Sofie pursue research focused on social media.

Where does your interest in science come from? Was it kindled at an early age?

Sofie: “My interest in science was generated mainly during my studies in communication sciences at KU Leuven. The subjects I was taught at the time all strongly focused on conducting your own research. In a research seminar on social media and alcohol use, taught by my supervisor Prof. Kathleen Beullens, I soon discovered that this subject really intrigued me. This interest was further fuelled during my master’s thesis research. I identified what gaps there were in the research field and was triggered to explore them further in a PhD project. However, my parents too played a big role. They did not pursue an academic career themselves, but they did teach me at an early stage to keep persevering, to think critically, to be curious, and to fully commit myself to my passions. All these qualities come in handy in my PhD research. I’ am therefore very pleased that the FWO has approved my PhD Fellowship application. “

Ilse: “I have a curious mind and a tendency to always go to the bottom of things. I have this curiosity in common not only with my sister, but also with my mom. She is also employed in a STEM occupation and together with my father she made it possible for us to grow up in an environment where we were encouraged to choose something that we like doing.”

Both of you are engaged in social media oriented research. Where does your interest in this area come from?

Sofie: “I’m particularly fascinated by social media. They have become an integral part of our daily lives. For many people, checking their social media profiles (e.g. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook) is the first thing they do when they wake up and the last thing they do before going to sleep. Also many children and young people are hooked on social media. This has generated a great deal of public concern about the effects of social media. Within our research group, the Leuven School for Mass Communication Research, we seek to provide a scientific and nuanced answer to this concern. We examine what positive and negative effects (social) media can have on different aspects of the well-being of young people (e.g. alcohol use, body image, sexuality, sleep, mental well-being). We identify what the short- and long-term effects of media use are, how they are caused, and in which people they occur most strongly. From a scientific perspective, this research is particularly challenging for various reasons. Social media are changing constantly, you can use them in different ways, and their effects are influenced by a whole series of individual and social factors. I find it particularly challenging to study this complexity, and am really pleased that it allows me to provide a scientifically based answer to this public concern.

“Moreover, I'm convinced that, as a researcher, you can make an impact; our studies help young people to become resilient in their use of social media.”

 

Ilse: “Social media are not only extremely popular among youngsters and adolescents, there’s also a continuous flow of innovations in this medium that constantly give rise to new issues that stimulate my interest. As a researcher, I am always eager to look for answers. Furthermore, I’m convinced that, as a researcher, you can make an impact, our studies help young people to become resilient in their use of social media, and even a company like Facebook uses this type of research to make changes to its platform aimed at improving the well-being of users.

“Although significant steps forward have already been made, the image that people have of a scientist is still very stereotyped.”

 

Why do you think an International Day of Women and Girls in Science is still relevant today?

Sofie: “Although significant steps forward have already been made, people still have a very stereotyped image of a scientist, PhD student, or professor. This is partly explained by the role models that people see. Initiatives like the International Day of Women and Girls in Science can help to adjust this perception and increase people’s awareness of the often subtle processes at play in this context. This could have a positive effect on gender balance in the long run. In addition to gender, attention should also be paid to other forms of diversity. As a society, we are facing huge challenges. If we want to overcome these challenges, we cannot afford to allow talent to go to waste.”

Ilse: “Efforts on gender equality are very much needed and (sadly) still a burning topical issue. The labour market is one of the many areas where gender inequality persists. This inequality and above all the complexity in which the imbalance manifests itself, fascinates me and is the central focus of my FWO PhD fellowship research. My research project is focused on how media portray various occupations. I explore how stereotypes are used in the portrayal of women in typically male occupations, but also vice versa, how men behave in typically female occupations. In addition, I plan to examine how interactions with media can contribute to making occupational choices. This research focuses on late adolescents because they must choose an occupational path at the end of their secondary school career. We want to know which youngsters are making a sound occupational choice, which is a choice that is based on interests and skills rather than on gender stereotypes. Through my research, I hope to pass on information on how media can positively contribute to helping girls in their choice of STEM occupations.

Where do you see yourselves ten years from now?

Sofie: “I find it very important to do things that I enjoy doing, that keep me motivated, that fascinate me, but especially also things that are meaningful. I draw tremendous strength from my research and from passing on my knowledge to both a scientific audience and to my students. Obviously I hope I’ll be able to continue to do that in the future.

Ilse: “I hope that in 10 years I’ll still be able to do what I like doing! I guess this means I will then still have the opportunity to rely on my research to find answers to all relevant societal questions that inspire me.”