A recent survey sponsored by the L’Oréal Foundation and led by Nobel Prize winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn reported that ‘67% of Europeans think that women do not possess the required capabilities in order to access high-level scientific positions’. That is two-thirds of the general public in Europe. And that statistic means that many women, as well as men, believe this to be true.
As a 2015 recipient of the Argentine L’Oréal-UNESCO fellowship for Women in Science, I was invited to combine this ecological inspirations blog with a reflection on the role of women in science. The L’Oréal Foundation, in collaboration with many national agencies and research councils, created this program with the objective of increasing the visibility of women working in physical and life sciences. Each year, in addition to the national programs, five international laureates are honored, one from each continent, to recognize outstanding achievements by women scientists from around the world. I feel honored to be a part of this group of women.
I believe we all have stories to tell. Stories of a roadblock, an obstacle, a hindrance that made it more difficult to continue pursuing the passion of science because of our gender. For some, seemingly innocuous comments along the lines of ‘you are much too pretty to be a scientist, you should dedicate yourself to something that takes advantage of that’. Or the female graduate student who wasn’t allowed to go to the field because of the all-male bunkhouse. My own tenth grade algebra teacher/wrestling coach who told me that ‘girls aren’t supposed to be good at math’. Comments that undermine. Actions that impede. Many have suffered much worse, with direct and obvious discrimination, but my guess is that no woman has gone untouched by what the lion’s share of the world still thinks. That women cannot, or should not, excel in science.
I would like to say, then, that my ecological inspiration comes from all the women who have kept calm and carried on doing science in their own style and at their rhythm in spite of these obstacles. My hat goes off to all of you who have stayed in the game, and have managed to change the rules a bit to ensure your happiness and wellbeing. My inspirations are women who have continued to pursue science as a career in all its facets, and the people who recognized their potential and encouraged them to follow their calling. Not only the Nobel Prize winners and the MacArthur fellowship recipients, who are certainly to be admired, but also the women who have not listened to the detractors and achieved a balance between life and science that allows them to continue doing what they love. In the context of this post, I would also like to highlight what I have come to appreciate first-hand in the last few years — the scientific contribution by the people, the vast majority of whom are women, whose names don´t go on the papers and who don´t end up in the spotlight –the scientists who work tirelessly in one of the most important aspects of our enterprise –that of scientific publishing and making available to others the results of all the hard work and experiments that have been done.
So I have been asked this a lot in the last few weeks — how can we promote women in science? It is a difficult and complex question to answer, and one for which I feel wholly unqualified to offer a definitive solution. But here are my personal thoughts on what things could be done. Do encourage excellence and reward enthusiasm to women who show promise, or have already demonstrated their achievement. Don´t pretend to promote women so you can look good on Twitter. Celebrate the success, highlight the positives, but don´t condescend. Don’t put up roadblocks; don’t undermine. Value the contributions from women working in all walks of science and in its all its manifestations (see the Journal of Ecology Special Feature on Plants and Biogeochemistry). And most importantly, believe that women can do good science. There is abundant evidence of this.
I remember in a recent interview for the L’Oréal awards, Julia Etulain, who was awarded the postdoctoral scholarship in the Argentine national program, said, “It would be fantastic if there comes a day when we don’t have to have a special award to highlight women in science. That awards would just be based on scientific achievement independently of gender (I am paraphrasing from Spanish, of course).” It is a lovely sentiment and one with which I wholeheartedly agree. But we are not there yet. We do not live in a perfect world and there is still much to do to Change The Numbers. Nevertheless, it is my hope for all those girls out there who like to play with frogs, or who eat dirt (as apparently I was prone to do as a toddler), or who want to know why plants are green and don’t eat meat, the national and international L’Oréal-UNESCO fellows For Women in Science can serve as an inspiration to highlight the possibilities that are out there. And so these same girls might believe, ‘That could be me.’
Amy Austin, Senior Editor, Journal of Ecology