You can do it too

2018-04-25

Think about the most famous names in science. Were Albert Einstein, Issac Newton, or Charles Darwin among them? Have Chien-Shiung Wu, Ada Lovelace or Barbara McClintock crossed your mind?

Although women have made significant contributions to science and technology, most names we read about or know of in science are not those of women. The heroines Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin aside, we don’t talk enough about the women scientists or teach enough about them.

The day before the International Women´s day, I had the opportunity to attend Loreal UNESCO For Women In Science prize ceremony to honour two women for their work in a male-dominated research field. During their acceptance speech both of the recipients, Marianne Liebi and Ruth Pöttigen, expressed their longing for times we won’t need a special prize for women in science. A sentiment I could not agree with more.

In a progressive country like Sweden, gender discrimination is often considered as a thing of the past. “Times have changed.”

“It is not as bad as it used to be.”

While it’s true that the fight for equality has made great strides over the last decades, the fact is that there is still some way to go.

In my institute, for example, there is still a peculiar gender gap at both the student and the professor level – albeit an opposite one. According to the 2016 annual report, women make up the majority at Karolinska Institutet, both as students (a whopping 72% of KI students are female), as well as staff (62%). Highest-level professor positions, on the other hand, are tipping towards the opposite side. Only 30% of the full professors at KI is female. Slightly above the 24% female professors across Sweden but still far from being ideal.

The discussion about equality in academia often revolves around why women can’t, what happens to women and why so few of them are in science. This has proven not very effective in the battle against our cultural perceptions. Consciously or unconsciously, there is still a common assumption that science and engineering jobs are more for men than women. Given that most of us, male and female, display such gender biases, how do we make the academic workplace fairer and more attractive to young female researchers? What do we do to facilitate a more gender diverse landscape in higher academic institutions?

If you can see someone who tackled a problem you are facing now, or have the potential to face in the future, suddenly it seems more doable. Similarly, if we bring the women who are successfully developing careers in engineering, technology or science in front of the public eye and into the daydreams of young girls, we might have a chance to inspire a new generation of Irène Joliot-Curies, Vera Rubins and many others.

The global efforts to plant seeds of equality in the younger generations seem to have started giving its first fruits. A recent study in Science shows that when asked what does a scientist look like, children are drawing more female scientists than ever. Yes, the transformation has begun.

Now that the image of a scientist is changing, if we shift the focus to how these women got into that career path, what they like and don’t like, as well as how they overcome obstacles, we can alter the ongoing tale.

For young minds, the ability to see someone you can imagine being is extremely invaluable. Having such role model(s) gives a young girl the confidence to try. To aim for something. To dare.

“If I have done it, you can do it too,” says Marianne, one of the prize winners, and Ruth slowly nods in agreement with a warm smile. Their eyes light up as they give me, a young PhD candidate in her last year, a pat in the back. Now I see what I need to be.