Hong Kong particle physicist Sau Lan Wu helped discover the Higgs boson particle. In London, Syrian-born Noor Shaker uses quantum physics to discover new medicines for the company she co-founded, GTN. In Kenya, Professor Jane Ngila works as a chemist to develop new methods to monitor water pollutants. Here in the UAE, Sarah Al Amiri is Minister of State for Advanced Technology and Chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency.
There are many examples around the world of inspiring women scientists at the vanguard of research. However, as we prepare to celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, 2022, we remain far from gender equality in science, with females accounting for just 30 percent of the world’s scientists. Why still so few?
Gender equality is a basic human right, and unequal access to careers in science violates the worldwide goals of economic empowerment, equality in leadership and justice and the other Sustainable Development Goals adopted by the United Nations. As women represent half of the world’s population, and therefore half of its potential, female empowerment is crucial to driving economic and social development and for engaging the ideas and perspectives of all people in the world.
Turning the tide
Times have at least changed since my days as a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Nancy Hopkins, who changed the world by leading a public report in 1999 on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.
The release of the report – which was the subject of a 2020 documentary Picture a Scientist – broke open the global discussion on women in academic science by showing how women in science were marginalized in every single aspect of their jobs, while expectations for them to be successful were set higher than their male colleagues.
When the study took place, only eight percent of the MIT science faculty were women. Those women, including Professor Hopkins, reported blatant sexism, having to contend with commonplace attitudes that science and motherhood were incompatible, and pervasive ideas like ‘girls are not good at math’.
As well as women being expected to work harder than their male colleagues, there was no concept of having a family friendly work environment and harassment was commonplace. The unwritten expectation was that a female academic just had to manage it and move on.
Thankfully, many institutions today take a very strong stance on these issues, including NYU Abu Dhabi where I now am fortunate to serve on the faculty. Having clear policies on discrimination makes a big difference; as does a vision of affordable childcare, parental leave, and a culture of empowering women to be world-class scientists. But there is still progress to be made, and it’s important to understand the factors holding women back from a career in science.
One of the biggest barriers to success is the competing demand of having to be an incredibly high performer as a scientist and, for some women, having a family. There are structures that we can and should put in place – such as flexible working rights and maternity leave – that mean women don’t have to make an unacceptable choice between family and a career.
Other barriers include the adherence to outdated ideas of what a successful scientist looks like – either the crazed scientist toiling alone in a lab, or the lone wolf who is out to make sure their brilliance is recognized by the world.
These images are pervasive in the media, sending a message to girls that to be a scientist means to be socially isolated, obsessed with an idea or somehow an overtly outgoing extrovert. None are true: science is social, collaborative and fun.
Different personality types and backgrounds matter when finding creative solutions to difficult problems. Thankfully, there has been a sea change in hiring policies in recent years where identity matters; Such policies make difference for women and for those people with identities underrepresented in the scientific workforce.
Representation must also go beyond the hiring stage, however, and one key advancement is eliminating the pay gap. Globally, women are paid only 77 percent of what men are paid for equal work. Many argue that this is in part attributed to a failure of women to negotiate hard enough when they negotiate for pay.
This can be out of fear of being seen as pushy, or due to imposter syndrome – not feeling they deserve the job – a syndrome that is rampant in science, as many girls and women are socialized to believe that science is the domain of brilliant men; when I got my first faculty job, I felt so lucky to be hired that negotiating for more seemed ungrateful.
Other subtle biases are important to check: Women’s choices are influenced by social and cultural biases surrounding the sciences and cultural definitions of femininity. Being outspoken, persistent, risk taking and curious – all traits of good scientists – are ones we see in many girls today, but this has not always been the case and although perceptions are changing, it is slow.
The UAE is clear in its support for women in science, with women accounting for 56 percent of the UAE’s graduates in STEM courses at government universities. Women represent celebrated positions in scientific workforces here, such as the Mars Hope probe team, 90 percent of whom are women. It has also made more wider steps forward around equal pay and maternity cover, which are also vital to progress.
We need more success stories like this. The International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a time when we can all celebrate the contributions of the creative, persistent and ambitious women scientists from the past, those dedicating their talents in science careers today, and the girls who dream of being scientists tomorrow.
We want to see a future where girls can choose their life’s work based on their interests and talents, not what is expected of them. And when you have a strong commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equality then you see people being hired for no other reason than their great work.
Kirsten Sadler Edepli is the NYUAD Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement and Engagement and Professor of Biology; Global Network Professor of Biology
NYUAD will host a virtual International Women in STEM event on February 11. EXPO 2020 Dubai will also hold an event on February 11.