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Science needs women

Malin Otmani

Some people get upset when the term women in science is used for the success of a female scientist, and partly I agree.

When we speak about achievements and excellent scientific work we should not put the focus on the gender but instead on the scientist herself or himself. But we also need to acknowledge the fact that today, in 2019, women still have to deal with biases against them in the sciences. I think it is perfectly fine to focus on both issues – the excellent scientist, regardless of gender, and the fact that she is a woman in science and statistically has had to take a tougher career path.

Throughout history female researchers have had to work as volunteer faculty members, they have been excluded from textbooks and seen credits and awards for their discoveries being assigned to male colleagues. Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, Nettie Stevens, Esther Lederberg and Jocelyn Bell Burnell are just a few examples. The bias against women scientists is less obvious today, but it has not gone away, and much still remains to be done. For example, women account for only 28 percent of the world’s researchers (UNESCO Science Report, 2015). In a recent report (The life of P.I. Transitions to Independence in Academia by Acton et al.) results showed that women principal investigators in the UK who have started their own lab in recent years are paid thousands of pounds a year less than men at the same stage of their careers.

In order to encourage and promote more women to pursue a career in science, awards, mentorship programs and other initiatives are of course important factors. For example, the L’Oréal-UNESCO’s International Women in Science Award has since 1998 recognized more than 102 laureates, and three of them have gone on to receive the Nobel Prize. Another example is the Swedish initiative Female Leader Engineer, which identifies talent and connects them to the industry – laying a foundation for potential female leaders. We must also go beyond the statistics and identify the qualitative factors that discourage women from pursuing careers in science, like education pathways and social factors such as starting a family and the workplace environment. More women scientists should also be able to obtain positions of responsibility so that future generations will have inspirational role models.
The importance of female role models in science and education can be highlighted by the story of Margaret Mathenge (A World of SCIENCE, Vol. 2, No. 1, January–March 2004). She grew up in a climate of domestic and tribal violence but against all odds she set out to become the first Samburu woman to hold a Master’s Degree in Science. She recalls the day when her first female teacher walked into her school and how it forever changed her life. She started to believe in herself and that she could become a scientist.

Regardless of whether you are a woman or a man (we need you too), our latest issue is filled with several inspiring articles about life science scientists and company leaders – and many of them happen to be women.