Women talk about the demands of a career in science

Mićo Tatalović

Mićo Tatalović
Deputy news editor, SciDev.Net


Rio+20 is unlikely to yield commitments on improving the status of women in science, despite there being a ‘Major Group’ on women and a separate one on science taking part in the negotiations, the forum heard yesterday evening at a side event on women in science.

There hasn’t much recognition of the issue in the UN negotiations so far, but women scientists could play a crucial role in sustainable development.

Sonia Bahri, from UNESCO said that science combined with gender equality could help achieve Millennium Development Goals.

“If sustainable development needs science – and we can all agree on that – science needs women – maybe this has not been highlighted enough these three days,” Bahri said.

Lilliam Diaz, a mathematician from the Cuban Academy of Sciences, who has also worked with the Cuban science ministry and Women in Science for the Developing World, said that science is not complete if women do not participate, because they approach issues differently and complement [male] scientists.

She said that although 66% of scientists in Cuba are women they still have to face subtle discrimination. “It’s hard for women in developing world doing science.”

But she added that there are efforts in Inter-American Network of Academies of Science to introduce gender issues in all of the academy’s programmes.

In Brazil, although there were equal proportions of men and women in science, women were still absent from top positions in science institutions, and are still underrepresented in physics, mathematics and engineering.

“The situation now is not as bad as in the 70s and hopefully it will improve as it did in the United Sates where there are many women chairs of departments,” said Belita Koiller Brazil, professor of physics at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian Academy of Science.

Indra Nath, an Indian pathologist and a 2002 Loreal Women in Science winner said it may have been easier for her to succeed in science as “Medicine all over the world is recognized as more sexy than straight science”.

It is more difficult for women to succeed in pure sciences, she said.

A big challenge is the drop off after attaining science degrees – period of 3-5 years when women start families – but the Indian government now has special grants and fellowships to help those women stay in science, she said.

Ameena Fakim, a scientist from Mauritus, who started a green business based on indigenous knowledge said that free education in her country boosted numbers of women graduates so they outnumber male students, but the same drop-off happens after degree level.

“We cannot keep on marginalized 50% of world’s population if we are to mainstream sciences.”

So more needs to be done to ensure women can have families and practice science. “Behind every successful man there’s a woman – behind every successful woman there’s a family,” Fakim said.

Alice Abreu, ICSU’s Latin America director highlighted that the person’s gender still plays a disproportionate role in their success in science. Challenges ahead include employing women in decision-making roles in science; reconciling career and family life; and understanding the link between gender and scientific excellence.

And there is a need for more gender equity in S&T education; provision of enabling measures for equality; and making the decision-making more gender-aware, among other things.

This blog post is part of our Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development blog which takes place 11-15 June 2012. To read news and analysis from the conference please visit our website.

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