Well, yes, of course, there are women in science! Just like there are men, transgender and non-binary people. So why do we have to talk about it? Why does it make a difference in science which gender you hold or identify with? Well, that debate is very passionate and timely, as it has been around for a couple of years. Only a couple of years! It is often addressed at meetings, in seminars and on social media, but referring to all the sources and articles is far beyond the scope of this article.
Should it not be completely normal to be a woman working in science? From all these questions, you probably got a gist of how complex this seemingly simple topic is. So, rather than giving an all-encompassing and political literature review, we want to remind you about the topic, and more than that, celebrate women in science! Apart from the tons of daily reasons to do so, there has been a huge and recent reason to celebrate. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier (Max Planck Institute) and Jennifer Doudna (UC Berkeley) for discovering a fundamental tool for molecular genetics known as CRISPR/Cas9! Some of you will have used it, and most of you will have heard of the opportunities it provides, which would not be in your labs without the work of these two women and their teams. We can only bow and congratulate them!
According to a CNN article from January 2020 quoting UN data, the percentage of female researchers worldwide in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and maths) is below 30%. That certainly seemed different when looking around amongst the students in a biology undergraduate course, which appears to have a lot more girls! This might be different for maths or chemistry, but still: Where do all these girls go? Why are there fewer women at higher positions in academic careers? Moreover, when you look at non-academic staff roles at universities such as counselling or administration, in the UK, for example, 63% (in the UK at least) are women, according to Times Higher Education. It is hard to pin down one clear reason for this. It depends very much on whom you ask and, since we are dealing with life choices and circumstances, here everyone is different. What most sources agree on, however, is the fact that the job of a scientist itself can be hard to combine with having and managing a family. Considering the gender roles women used to have in the past years, and their slow change in most countries, this might be one reason why being a researcher was not necessarily the first job young girls used to dream or be able to take in the past. Happily, this scenario has considerably changed!
Is having kids today still why so many girls who studied biology/chemistry in their undergraduate drop out on the way to being a PI? Is it old, persistent structures in universities? A combination of both? We are not aiming to give the final answer here. Certainly, this sensitive topic requires very detailed studying and a wide range of factors need to be considered. We will leave that to each of you!
So let’s zoom in and look at ourselves. What’s the situation like at ISN? If you look at the numbers the following comes up: for the YSSC, 2 women out of 6; out of all other committee members: 39% (51 women of 134 overall committee members), 9 council members out of whom 2 are women. Last, but not least, the highest level: 3 officers, 2 women. Obviously, other factors, like the country represented by the respective person and the qualification/willingness to take part in a committee plays a role as well.
In summary, the recognition of women and equality in science, like in other fields, is a work in progress. We are on a good path in a sense that the number of new female PIs is increasing and the fact that gender balance and equality actually matters is more and more realized by those in charge. Just an example: at the ISN Meeting in Montreal, where we listened to 4 plenary lectures, 2 of them female and the Marthe Voigt lecture, which is dedicated to the very topic of recognising the works of women in science. Today, when you submit a proposal for an international conference, it matters to the program committee whether you have considered gender balance and equality, in both directions, by the way, an all-female symposium is not the aim either. We need to continue on this path for those coming and for all those brave ladies who did the work but received most of their well-deserved hour and acknowledgement post mortem or for those who never had their talent and achievements recognized. What do you think that could be done to encourage more women to pursue a career in science, particularly in academia? Let us know if you have any ideas and email the firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you next month,