The Three Musketeers: Making an Impact in French Remote Sensing and Breaking Down Gender Barriers

EarthzineThemed Articles, Women in STEM 2016

Three French scientists in remote sensing discuss overcoming barriers at work and the opportunities for future generations.

Professor Florence Tupin beside a corner reflector used for calibration during the mission on the Argenti̬res Glacier for synthetic aperture radar data acquisition. Image Credit: Florence Tupin

Professor Florence Tupin beside a corner reflector used for calibration during the mission on the Argenti̬res Glacier for synthetic aperture radar data acquisition. Image Credit: Florence Tupin

The story of the Three Musketeers is a familiar one ‰ÛÒ a tale of friendship with swashbuckling adventures and twists of political intrigue. Though without the swords, three French scientists ‰ÛÒ all women ‰ÛÒ have taken to calling themselves Les Trois Mousquetaires because of their pioneering work in remote sensing coupled with difficult work of another variety: breaking through glass ceilings.

Josiane Zerubia, H̩l̬ne de Boissezon, and Florence Tupin are making their marks on science in different ways.

Josiane Zerubia

Josiane Zerubia

Zerubia is the sole woman in the 2016 class of the IEEE Signal Processing Society‰Ûªs Distinguished Lecturers. She has been an IEEE Fellow since 2003, a permanent research scientist at INRIA (the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation) since 1989 and director of research since July 1995. She headed =three research groups at INRIA, all mainly dedicated to mathematical models for solving inverse problems in image processing with a focus on remote sensing.

De Boissezon, an agronomy engineer, worked for CNES (the French Space Agency) for eight years as the head of the Image Analysis and Products Directorate, and recently moved into a newly created department, the Innovation, Applications and Science Directorate. The new department is devoted to developing commercial and public services using Earth observation techniques for disaster mitigation and risk management. It was created to help CNES boost innovation and creativity in its applications outside the scientific and defense communities.

Tupin is a professor at Telecom ParisTech, one of the top public institutions for higher education and engineering research in France, in the Signal and Image Processing Department, and has headed the Image Processing and Understanding Group since 2014. Tupin‰Ûªs work with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) image processing is used to help extracting useful information from SAR images in urban or natural areas.

Though each of these women has made important contributions to their fields, each has come up against gender biases. Each has had to work hard to achieve their level of professional success, they said. In recent years, French society has seen an easing of typically male roles into either gender roles. Some organizations, like CNES, lead the trend by filling top positions with female managers. De Boissezon noted that CNES strives to be an example of insuring gender equality at the workplace. Several of her colleagues are moving into visible leadership roles: In 2017, Genevi̬ve Campan will become head of the Digital, Operation and Exploitation Directorate, while Marie Anne Clair will become the head of Orbital Systems Directorate.

HÌ©l̬ne de Boissezon (standing and pointing down) gives a presentation of the work performed by CNES during the 2010 Haiti earthquake. She presented the numerous maps produced from satellite images acquired immediately after the earthquake, which were used by U.N. bodies, French, German and Canadian civil protections and various nongovernmental organizations during the ‰ÛÏsearch and rescue‰Û phase. Image Credit: HÌ©l̬ne de Boissezon/CNES

HÌ©l̬ne de Boissezon (standing and pointing down) gives a presentation of the work performed by CNES during the 2010 Haiti earthquake. She presented the numerous maps produced from satellite images acquired immediately after the earthquake, which were used by U.N. bodies, French, German and Canadian civil protections and various nongovernmental organizations during the ‰ÛÏsearch and rescue‰Û phase. Image Credit: HÌ©l̬ne de Boissezon/CNES

This however brings into light the issue of gender quotas. A debate rages in France, as it does in many other nations, about whether or not women are elevated into positions of power through their own merit and qualifications, or to satisfy quotas and improve statistics. The suggestion that women get to where they are solely because of quotas incenses one of the Trois Mousquetaires.

Zerubia recalls that in 1983 when she worked in a research lab, some jealous colleagues made comments that she was only there because she was a young woman.

‰ÛÏThe joke ‰Û_ was if you are a female, black, and disabled, that‰Ûªs perfect,‰Û Zerubia said. ‰ÛÏOf course now things are evolving. We have currently eight (INRIA) research centers in eight different regions in France. Of eight research center managers, two of them are ladies. The first lady who became a research director first class at INRIA was in 2000. I was the second one in 2002. Now we have more. There are good reasons to be optimistic for the future, because things are changing slowly, but just to tell the young ladies that they have to believe in their dream is not sufficient.‰Û

Zerubia hopes aspiring young women will realize, as she said, a dream sometimes isn‰Ûªt enough ‰ÛÒ hard work and determination are expected as well.

But de Boissezon said that she thinks quotas are essential for aiding more women attain high-level positions.

‰ÛÏThere is a special attention paid at CNES to have a balanced integration of women and men,‰Û she said. ‰ÛÏI think this is a good thing. But the problem is that the women do not evolve a lot into the company. The progression into the hierarchy is not effective. Women are self-limiting.‰Û

Tupin said in the academic realm, she has observed women passed over for high-level promotions not because of lack of qualifications or some inherent bias, but rather because the women in question (but also some men) were content to stay where they were due to the scientific interest of their jobs. High-level promotions often mean more administrative and management responsibilities at the cost of time for scientific inquiry.

‰ÛÏIn academic world it‰Ûªs not so difficult; it‰Ûªs OK if you want to have a high position. I‰Ûªve been teaching head for the department before,‰Û Tupin said. ‰ÛÏAnd French universities have recently introduced new rules to promote women, like imposing a woman percentage in recruiting commissions.‰Û

To further involve young women in the field of remote sensing, Tupin and Zerubia noted several ways: to interest young girls in science through games, testimonies, and laboratory visits, and to invite women to be keynote speakers at conferences (at least with the same percentage as the percentage of women in scientific population in these conferences).

The women agreed that what they consider their greatest contributions to their fields are those on a personal level: Tupin and Zerubia said they were most proud of having mentored a number of Ph.D. students. De Boissezon is proud that her previous work participated in the creation of the new directorate dedicated to services for public and commercial use, rather than solely for science or defense.

Within the field of remote sensing, the scientists each pointed to the essential collaboration between research and commercial industry to handle the challenges of Big Data. Processing the terabytes of data that satellites beam back to the Earth each day requires legions of analysts to sort through it and make it useful for science and policy decisions.

‰ÛÏWith new generations of satellites, among them nanosatellites and the very flexible systems that are proposed that are very cost effective, there will be a major change, an effective democratization of Earth observations,‰Û de Boissezon said. ‰ÛÏWe already have a lot of free data available, but it is very difficult to process them. Human intelligence is always needed. How do you insert human intelligence, which remains indispensable to extract useful information? If the information that is extracted automatically is not reliable and efficient, it will not be usable by operational and long-term systems and services.‰Û

The final point mentioned by the three women: ‰ÛÏAs everybody knows the Three Musketeers were in fact four ‰Û_ So guess who the fourth one is?‰Û

That‰Ûªs the role for the next generation of women in remote sensing to fill.

Kelley Christensen is Earthzine‰Ûªs Science Editor