Women in Science: Towards an Inclusive Future?

Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which advocates against the discrimination women undergo in their professional scientific fields. The recognition of women in science, as actors of change and engaged professionals, has always faced issues. Science and gender equality are undeniably tied to success in the achievement of international development goals. The global community has worked on highlighting the inspiring and engaging women scientists of our century.

However, women and girls in scientific fields still struggle for recognition. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students, such as Margaux Lille, have spoken about the issue female students still face.

“The lack of representation of successful female scientists during my studies as a mechanics engineer affected myself and some fellow students. I had two friends that dropped out of school due to the combination of feeling excluded by men and being very attractive to them at the same time.”

According to a study executed by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, 58 percent of women academics in those fields have experienced sexual harassment or misconduct.

In the bachelor of Mechanics engineering at the Polytechnic University in Montreal,only 20% of subscribed students were women in 2021. The fight for better inclusion and gender equality in science has led to the creation of a unique search system powered by 500 Women Scientists: gage.

©Farrah Skeiky – Nicole Williams, marine biologist, Director of Outreach for gage and member of the international organisation 500 women.

To highlight a more inclusive scientific expertise, gage is:

“A resource for journalists, educators, policymakers, and others seeking the expertise of women and gender diverse STEM professionals. It’s a better kind of Google because behind every search result, there is an amazing and dedicated person,” Elizabeth McCullagh says.

Assistant Professor of neuroscience Elizabeth McCullagh and marine biologist Nicole Williams both discussed the challenges they faced and the experiences that led them to work together. They were both affected by insufficient enforcement of tangible criteria to evaluate job applicants, a poor support system in science universities, and a lack of voluntary inclusion from colleagues. The roadblocks they faced powered their daily dedication to building a more inclusive scientific community.

“I was interested in marine science […] and also, really sceptical because as a black woman in science, well, you don’t see a lot of black women marine biologists. It was isolating, going to labs and working in spaces which were predominantly white male spaces.”

This led Nicole to develop peer-mentoring programmes for underrepresented students as well as women at Brown University. Through these programmes Nicole discovered the relations she was able to create with the students and “became that mentor, that I wished I had”. Getting involved in 500 Women in Science later made her fall in love with science all over again.

Assistant Professor of neuroscience Elizabeth McCullagh and her daughters.
Assistant Professor of neuroscience Elizabeth McCullagh and her daughters.

Brought up in a family environment with many women scientists, Elizabeth turned to 500 women in science hoping to help create a collaborative network for everybody:

“It would be a collaborative network and a safe space for people and voices who weren’t heard as loudly as others. Noticing that four out of five of the panellists were men at conference panels and “knowing at least half of them could and should be women”, led Elizabeth to team up with fellow colleagues to build what is now known as gage.

 

As Director of Outreach for gage and member of the international organisation 500 women in Science, Nicole Williams puts forward the importance of a strong support system. Through the creation of Pods in 500 women in Science,women from the global community can reach out to each other.

“As women, we often work twice as hard to be heard, acknowledged, or just considered. It’s so important to be able to rely on a strong support system, and give ourselves breaks.”

The Pods implemented allow local group meetings to establish local actions, discussion,and support for these experts. As broad as the word expert can be, this inclusive search system invites anyone who wants to be a voice in their field to join. Making a difference and moving forward in the fight for inclusion in science is challenging.

“If you don’t have a local thing to do it’s just going to pass over you. Things to take home, have a true impact on one’s life. […] The most important thing is to change people’s hearts. It’s so easy to forget about it and get angry at everything going wrong in our world. But truly making a difference in someone’s heart makes you never want to stop fighting”, Elizabeth says.

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science aims to spotlight these engaged professionals. To play a part in helping the scientific community to become more inclusive to women, here are a few tips:

  • Elizabeth and Nicole encourage every woman scientist to reach out for help. “Asking for help isn’t being weak, it’s about taking help from people who are privileged and maybe don’t know how to help. I asked my co-worker scientist to introduce me to everyone he knew, and he gladly did it! Don’t be afraid to take that space and pinpoint how they can help.”  Elizabeth says.
  • Seeking a support system or creating one is also an important tip to take home. Being part of something bigger as a group can help provide resources, opportunities,and professional development. “Use your voice, speak up,and go to people who want to help. My studies were hard and being alone, often discouraged me. Today I’m able and happy to fight and give a voice to students like me” Nicole adds.
  • Elizabeth emphasises the amazing opportunities a mentor can bring to someone. Being a mentor gives yourself meaning and importance to someone’s life journey. A mentor can be anyone you are comfortable sharing with. “Asking, officially, someone to be a mentor is important. It gives a responsibility/liability to the mentor in giving unbiased advice and a safe space to talk. You can just come up and ask ‘Do you mind being a mentor to me?’”

A significant gender gap has persisted throughout the years at all levels of science, technology, engineering,and mathematics (STEM) disciplines all over the world. Although great strides have been made, having an inclusive scientific community is still a work in progress.

To learn more about gender equality in science please refer to:

Photography credits: Farrah Skeiky

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