Women still missing from science, report shows; meanwhile, ideas for improvement are not

A report published yesterday on the position of women in science confirmed the need to keep pushing for change. Around the world, many small solutions abound.

Women still missing from science, report shows; meanwhile, ideas for improvement are not

A report on the current state of women in science, commissioned by the Fondation L’Oréal and carried out by the Boston Consulting Group, was released yesterday. No real surprises, but a confirmation that all the efforts made in the name of attracting girls to science and retaining them are worth it and must continue. Ideas for more and more actions to improve the image of science, both in society and in the minds of girls, are brewing and several winners of the L’Oréal-UNESCO prize For Women in Science had theirs to share.

A report on the current state of women in science, commissioned by the Fondation L’Oréal and carried out by the Boston Consulting Group, was released yesterday. No real surprises, but a confirmation that all the efforts made in the name of attracting girls to science and retaining them are worth it and must continue. Ideas for more and more actions to improve the image of science, both in society and in the minds of girls, are brewing and several winners of the L’Oréal-UNESCO prize For Women in Science had theirs to share.

Dr. Segenet Kelemu was honored for her work on the symbiotic relationship between
microorganisms and forage crops. Her research may help these plants resist disease
and adapt to climate change. (
Flickr / © L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science 2014)

Reflecting the goal of the Fondation L’Oreal to support women at every level of science, a new analysis conducted by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) assessed seven comparable nations on such points as performance in high school science, numbers of women graduating with higher degrees in scientific fields, and the representation of women on the board of research institutions. Data from international organizations and national statistical institutes was collected on Spain, France, Germany, the UK, the US, Japan and China.

Three major conclusions can be drawn from the findings, explained Sara Ravella, General Manager of the Fondation L’Oréal, at a press conference in Paris this morning. First, we are, indeed, still far from achieving gender parity in the sciences. Over the past decade, the numbers of women in science have increased, yes, but modestly: up by 12% between the end of the 1990s and the 2010s.

Secondly, the BCG study identifies the moment where the gender gap begins as occurring at university, when students choose a major. BCG’s Stéphane Cairole blames the action of stereotypes, both personal and parental. Girls’ self-image may play a role, if they fear becoming what they imagine a “scientific woman” to be. “The idea may seem funny, but the stereotype is firmly established.” Parents, too, Mr. Cairole believes, project ideas very early on about what they want or expect their children to become.   

The third point to take away from the findings is the equivalent performance in science of boys and girls at age 15. While it is noticeable in the data that there are more boys among the top performers, they are also more present at the bottom; the large majority of “average” science students are split quite evenly between girls and boys. There is, then, clearly no question of ability at play when women entering university choose not to pursue science. This leads directly to the conclusion that initiatives aiming to do away with harmful stereotypes earlier rather than later might, indeed, be most effective.

Small solutions abound

Disappointingly, no new solutions were proposed today, though perhaps the Fondation L’Oréal will reveal more about the roots of the problem identified, at a later date. Nevertheless, ideas were not lacking on the level of attendees, of all different origins, including the international laureates of the 2014 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards. Dr. Segenet Kelemu, Director of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (@ICIPE) in Kenya and the winner for Africa, believes we need to change the view of science in society, in general. “People think science is for people who are a little bit crazy, or extraordinarily gifted, who are focused on books and have no life. This starts in elementary school.” She feels we need to bring more real life into science education and more examples of research that has made a difference in people’s lives. Not surprising, coming from the woman whose three words to describe science, as told to WAX Science, would be “exciting”, “purposeful” and “impactful”.

For Stéphane Cairole, in terms of attracting girls to science, there might be a compromise between giant mass media campaigns promoting science and one-on-one mentoring that could take ages to have an effect: advocacy marketing, or viral marketing (essentially, word of mouth). Much like Red Bull, which uses very few true ads, a descriptive message about women in science could lend itself well to this technique. And, for that message, why not try something provocative, he suggests. (Better to avoid falling into the “Science: It’s a Girl Thing” trap, though.)

In Brazil, they’re taking this approach in the sense of provoking thought, with an initiative aimed at the general public. Dr. Mayana Zatz, 2001 laureate of the For Women in Science prize, described a new campaign going up in subway stations. Posters will pose provocative questions related to science and, while passengers wait for their train and reflect on these, they can connect via their mobile phones for more information.

“As scientists, we don’t do a good enough job explaining our work to the public,” confirms Dr. Laurie Glimcher, Dean of Weill Cornell Medical College and this year’s winner for North America. She does what she can, giving interviews whenever possible, but also commits a great deal of time to supporting younger women in science, both emotionally and with concrete financial assistance: “You have to put your money where your mouth is.” Among other things, she founded a childcare center at the medical school, which she couldn’t believe didn’t exist already, and pushed through a program at the NIH (sadly, discontinued since, for lack of funding) that provided a lab technician for women researchers with young children. “They’re your hands in the lab when you have a two-year-old and need to leave early.”

Although the precise reasons behind the “leaky pipeline” causing science to lose its women will be numerous, and individual, and often subtle, the solutions are also sure to come in many forms, from a multitude of sources at different levels. “Imposing rules from above is limited in its efficacy,” says Dr. Glimcher. “It has worked in some cases, but it’s more important to encourage women to have a career they’re passionate about, and science is one of those.”