Today, we celebrate the achievements and contributions of women across the world. Women as citizens, mothers, daughters, workers, helpers, leaders, scientists – women, who just like men, are trying to make a difference in this world.
I have been looking forward to writing this piece and sharing with you how empowering it can be to work with science communicators – especially women in science – who are passionate about their research and engaging the public in their research. And yet, that we have to celebrate such a day makes me uncomfortable.
Even using hashtags such as #womeninSTEM or #WomenInScience can seem inherently contradictory. Scientists, like anyone making a valuable contribution to society, should be celebrated as such; people who go out of their way to make an impact. No gender labels. No labels whatsoever.
In a LinkedIn post on fostering a more inclusive culture, Helen Mets writes:
“Last December, Donna Strickland became the first woman to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 55 years. Today, on International Day of Women and Girls in Science, it’s more important than ever to celebrate Donna’s achievement. But can we imagine a world in which the recent headlines had been worded differently? What if instead being seen as a ‘woman’ first, Donna was simply described as an excellent scientist? I wish her gender was irrelevant, that it didn’t have to be mentioned at all – but on days like today, it should be.”
Despite the fact that we have come a long way in creating a more equal world for both men and women, gender is relevant to how society values and rewards achievement. Which is why, if we truly aim to have a more inclusive and diverse global scientific community that encompasses the skills and talent society needs to address some of the daunting challenges we face, it’s imperative that we put the spotlight on female scientists. Elodie Chabrol, a science communication expert, reached out to women researchers in various fields to ask them what it means to them being a scientist. What it really feels to be a woman in science. They came up with some truly inspiring responses that gave us, and I hope you too, food for thought.
“It’s frustrating to find that most people don’t know what engineers do, and to see photos of girls in hard hats illustrating articles on women in STEM. Hopefully someday I will not be a member of a minority that requires distinction, and I can just be an engineer full stop. A bioengineer who never wears a hard hat.”
Dr Paola De Sessions @ PaolaFlorezdeS Previously an infectious disease researcher, Genome Institute, Singapore, now working for Oxford Nanopore Technologies
“When I was in my mid-20’s, I knew I had found my calling. I only know how to be a scientist. Science is a journey, the technology is the road, progress is the destination. I feel a passion about infectious disease research that is unequaled. It shapes my world view, the food that I eat, what I read, even where I choose to sit. I see being a female in a field where most of the senior staff (at least in my institute) are men, not as a challenge but as an opportunity to push the envelope day after day.”
“I feel like a spider being pulled by the legs, in all directions, and every so often (somehow) an amazing web gets made.”
“It means doing things that you never imagined like building instruments that fly in space, and making contributions to understanding this complex world like the beautiful dances of the aurora borealis, and helping others realize their dreams, because you can do it too and we need all perspectives to do better at solving problems!”
“I’m a scientist because science is everyday inspiration, learning and wonder. And because science is crucial to Society. One difference between males and females pursuing an academic career, is that women may potentially miss out on opportunities if they decide to have a child. This can put their career on hold, making it challenging to compete in the highly demanding academic world.”
Dr Francesca Fragkoudi@astro_francesca Astrophysicist working on galaxies, dynamics & dark matter at The Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, Germany
“It means being able to follow my curiosity and work on what I’m passionate about. And it also means being grateful for all the pioneering women who made it possible for our generation to work in science and who fought for the rights that we have today.”
“To me, being a female scientist means exploring how to exist at the intersection of different identities. It pushes me to explore the conditions of identifying as female in the current society, the interplay with the work I do, how science has been done up to now, and how I want the future of it to be. This constant reflection is a call of awakening to fight against privileges and to make science more equal and more accessible to everyone.”
Dr Heather Berlin @heather_berlin Neuroscientist, Prof. of Psychiatry, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, Clinical Neuropsychology, Weill Cornell Medicine, USA
“I am a scientist who happens to be female.Simply being a woman and doing what I love to do unapologetically shows other girls that it is possible. I have the privilege of living in a time and place where women are free to pursue their dreams. There are still many obstacles and prejudices to overcome for women in STEM, attitudes I continue to encounter and challenge one by one, both in the public sphere and in the workplace, but my estimation is that things are slowly getting better. I hope to lead by example and show young girls, especially my 5-year-old daughter, that girls can do anything boys can do. The best way men can make the world a better place and be allies is by celebrating and embracing strong, intelligent, competent women, instead of being threatened by them. Generations of women never had the chances that my daughter’s generation will have to engage in science. I salute all the women in STEM who came before me who paved the way.”
“Scientist, woman, mum, citizen, daughter, sister…. All these roles make you a transformative person in society. The world needs to be understood from a woman’s point of view. Science and society also need women to build a more just and sustainable future for everyone and everything. Let’s empower new generations to keep doing what we started.”
Dr Béryl Laplace-Builhé @BBuilhe Developmental and regenerative biology, Institute of Regenerative Medicine and Biotherapies, France
“Becoming a female scientist, in my mind as a 10-year-old girl, was no different than being a male scientist. I had great role models in my family so I was confident that a girl could achieve it. Now, as a 28-year-old woman, I am concerned by the statistics. Not so many positions available and you have a disadvantage – you’re a woman. In France, in public institutions there is a big gap: no parity among permanent researcher positions. Nevertheless, I let the little girl in me pursue her dreams and her passion. So let’s do it!”
“Being a female scientist shouldn’t be any different from being any other flavour of scientist, but unfortunately it can be. Women are just one underrepresented group in STEM. Being in science allows me to use my role to nudge the culture and make it more inclusive for everyone.”
“Being a scientist – and by chance a female one – is a very dynamic job with challenging missions. Having the possibility to contribute to the knowledge of a scientific field or to the well-being of another human, is a privilege. Inspiring new generations to go beyond any standardised role model, is the future. Would you give it a try, girl?”
“I wish being a brown female scientist wasn’t remarkable – I understand why, because the pipeline is often leakiest for people like me. Although there is now a lot more talk about diversity and inclusion, I’d love to see more ‘effects’ where people like me aren’t so remarkable.”
“Being a female scientist is challenging but rewarding. It’s tough at times but I’m proud to now be able to mentor the next generation and have fantastic female scientists in my team. As a friend said: “You can have a successful science career and be a mum. Is it easy? Hell no!”
“Being a female scientist means I am in the front line, working everyday to solve today’s grand challenges including hunger and climate change. It is the most humbling feeling. It also means that I have a huge responsibility of paving way for many other women because the statistic of women scientists making up less than 30 percent must change!”
“Being a female scientist right now means being part of a movement determined to empower women, level the playing field and ensure equal opportunity for all. Not sitting in the sidelines waiting for change to happen, but being part of the force that makes it so.”
“Science means freedom of thought and power of knowledge. It gives us the wings to never stop dreaming and the tools to create. Being a woman and being a scientist represents a daily opportunity to contribute for me to make societal impact.”
“Science gives me this unique identity unrelated to gender or nationality. It is my good friend that gives me strength when I need it the most. When I decided to move to Europe to pursue a PhD, I had to face a lot of doubt. But, while I am doing an experiment, presenting my works, or discussing with other scientists, science gives me the power to forget all the gender or race differences, because it’s greater than that.”
“To me, being a scientist means I can explore the world from a different perspective and appreciate the beauty of the universe we live in. I can ask as many questions as I want and try and carry out experiments to answer these questions – science is beautiful. As a woman in STEM, and a woman of colour in STEM, I consider myself a minority in a minority, or minority squared if you will. But I won’t let that stop me from doing what I love – science is global. It’s for everyone. Do what you love and that’s the most important part. Don’t let society put you in a box and guide you – let yourself go wherever your heart is content.”
Science is global. Science is for everyone. We couldn’t agree more.
Fani Kelesidou is Marketing Communications Manager at Hindawi. Elodie Chabrol is International Director of Pint of Science. Fani and Elodie would like to thank all the scientists who contributed to this article. To share your news, ideas, and opinions, feel free to contact Fani at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.