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Supporting women in science

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Women play important role in various fields of science and technology. Photo by Mohd Fadhli Yong for Universiti Malaya

By: Ts. Dr.-Ing. Zarina Itam

July 11 marks the World Population Day. The World Population Day was established by United Nations Development Programme in 1989 to raise awareness on issues affecting global population, such as those involving gender equality, reproductive health, poverty, and sustainable development.

Ts. Dr.-Ing. Zarina Itam

Being a woman in science myself, gender equality is naturally important to me. Gender equality refers to the equal treatment and rights of individuals, regardless of their gender, and promotes the idea that all genders should have the same opportunities, responsibilities, and access to resources.

In order to attain gender equality, ingrained societal norms, prejudices, and discriminatory practises must be challenged. Issues like gender wage gaps, unequal representation in leadership roles, gender-based violence, constrained access to education and healthcare, and limitations on reproductive rights must be tackled accordingly.

Marie Curie, born in 1867 was a pioneering scientist, and was the first woman to ever receive a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. But little do we know of the struggles she faced during her time. Marie Curie faced numerous challenges throughout her career. In her early years, Marie Curie was restricted from receiving a formal education due to her gender, which was a normal occurrence or women in Poland during that era.

Marie Curie conducted extensive research on the nature of radioactivity and developed the theory of radioactivity. However, her research also faced scepticism and scrutiny from other scientists. But despite that, she persevered and received her second Nobel Prize in 1911 for her discovery of the radioactive elements and isolation of pure radium.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, primary education became more accessible to girls in many countries. Establishment of women’s colleges and universities, such as Mount Holyoke College in the United States, and Girton College in the United Kingdom provided higher education opportunities exclusively for women. The University of Oxford established the ‘Lectures for Ladies’ scheme, which was a series of lectures that were specifically organized for women, allowing education for women. All these efforts indirectly led to an increase in the number of women working in science, breaking pre-existing gender stereotypes. The increase in women pursuing education and careers in science and technology, including areas such as engineering was substantial.

Now, in the 21st century, what challenges do women face in the field of science and technology?

Today, women are making strides in the scientific fields. Ayşe Erzan, born 1949, is theoretical physicist from Turkey who received a number of awards including a L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science in 2003, and a Rammal Award in 2009. Elizabeth M. Ward is an American epidemiologist and head of the Epidemiology and Surveillance Research Department of the American Cancer Society. Not limited to that, numerous more women of this era are also represented in senior faculty positions, research leadership, and decision-making positions within the academia, as well as scientific institutions. Gender stereotypes and biases might seem to have diminished, and women now have equal access to research funding, lab resources, and career advancement opportunities as their male counterparts.

However, societal norms and gender roles still expect women to juggle domestic duties, familial responsibilities, and career aspirations simultaneously. This can be particularly challenging for women in science. The demanding nature of scientific careers, including long hours, and frequent travel, can pose challenges for women with families. And between familial and career expectations, a woman simply cannot fail at either.

Despite this, the number of women obtaining advanced degrees in science and technology has been steadily increasing. Statistics by the National Science Foundation of the USA on the number of earned doctoral degrees by sex found that the number of women to have earned doctoral degrees in science and engineering courses in 2011 increased to 17,093, which was a 57.7% increase compared to the year 2000 with the number of women to have earned doctoral degrees in science and engineering courses of 10,838.  As more women enrol in PhD programmes and pursue academic careers, the scientific fields that women pursue are becoming more diverse.

Efforts must be taken to overcome these challenges and build a more inclusive and diverse scientific community. Organizations, academic institutions, and governments should implement gender equality initiatives that address systemic barriers and promote equal opportunities for women in science. These initiatives may include establishing gender representation goals, funding diversity and inclusion training, and adopting rules to combat bias and discrimination based on gender.

Mentorship programs that pair women scientists with experienced mentors can help them navigate challenges, develop their careers, and build professional networks. Mentors can play a vital role in supporting women scientists by providing guidance, advice, and networking opportunities.

Creating work-life balance policies are also essential for retaining women in scientific careers. Flexible work arrangements, parental leave policies, and childcare support can help women scientists manage their professional and personal responsibilities. Promoting a healthy work-life balance enables women to thrive in their careers without sacrificing their personal lives.

Encouraging and supporting women’s leadership development in science is vital for promoting gender equality. Providing leadership training, mentoring opportunities, and pathways for women scientists to assume leadership roles can help overcome barriers and increase women’s representation in decision-making positions.

By implementing these initiatives and strategies, an inclusive and supportive environment that empowers women in science, improves gender equality, and harnesses the full potential of scientific talent could be created. Commitment and collaboration with numerous stakeholders, including governments, organisations, professional groups, and individuals are essential to drive meaningful change in support of women in science.

Rather than focusing on breaking the metaphorical glass ceiling, a more forward-thinking approach may lie in completely removing it.

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The author is a Senior Lecturer and Head of Unit (External Relations) at Civil Engineering Department, College of Engineering, Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN). She may be reached at izarina@uniten.edu.my

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