Today we celebrate International Women’s Day and #EmbraceEquity. This is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women but also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.
To commemorate the day we talked to six women scientists and got their perspectives. We would like to thank Valerie De Anda who helped us to compile the interviews.
Karine Villeneuve – Canada
I study prokaryotes that live in aquifers to identify the major drivers of change in the composition and diversity of their community.
My role model is Dr. Ursula Martius Franklin. She was a German Canadian metallurgist, research physicist, author and educator. Throughout her life, she was also a humanitarian who actively worked for peace and justice, protested and acted for women’s rights and advocated for the protection of the natural environment.
I am grateful that all my life I was surrounded by strong, intelligent and fearless women that made it clear that gender is never an obstacle and was encouraged to work in whichever field I loved. I wish everyone could be inspired in the same way I was and therefore I do believe we must still work towards paving a path for an inclusive scientific world.”
Lourdes Vázquez Cruz – Mexico
I am a biologist and speleologist. My research is about cave fish demography. I study a little blind fish that lives in Mexican caves and use mathematical models to predict and estimate fish populations trends in the future.
In my personal experience, it was very challenging to have a child and balance motherhood and professional life. You must work harder to achieve your goals, particularly if you are a single mother. Often, there is a prejudice against women who are mothers and the path to professional growth and success is harder. I think this is probably one of the main reasons for the lack of women in science. Having and raising a child is one of the biggest challenges and could be a road bump for every woman who wants to continue her professional life.
My female role model is Segenet Kelemu, a molecular plant pathologist whose groundbreaking research is dedicated to helping subsistence farmers grow more food and lift themselves out of poverty. Kelemu grew up in a poor farming family in Ethiopia. In her village girls get married very young through arranged marriages, but she refused to follow those beliefs and traditions and was the first woman from her region to have a degree. After years of studying outside of her country, she decided to return to Africa and do something for her people, even though she led a good life abroad. I believe that she is a great female scientist and role model because she achieved her goals despite the hard circumstances for a woman and because she used her knowledge to help their country and those in need.”
Yosra Ressaissi – Tunisia
I am an engineer in livestock and fodder resources studying animal genetic resources and biodiversity, and analysing the genetic variability of indigenous rare populations and breeds.
Being a woman involved in science isn’t easy, indeed it is very challenging, though interesting as well. What I really enjoy as a woman in science is the cultural and research exchange. I had the opportunity to visit many countries and to meet different people from different nationalities, which greatly inspired me and changed my mindset on different aspects. I learned to be completely independent, to count only on myself, and to understand the meaning of “me, myself and I”, and I became stronger. Certainly, I faced many obstacles. I had hard times and moments and I felt loneliness. I suffered from injustice and even discrimination, because women are thought to be weak and emotional, but I never gave up simply because of the love I have for my field. Believing in myself and my dreams was always pushing me to go further and to keep looking my way. I do believe that nothing is impossible and that if you dream, it means that your soul is alive. So have faith, be strong, and go for it. Life is about fun and sciences are more fun!”
Francisca Andrea Marchant Maldonado – Chile
I am doing a PhD in Engineering Sciences at the University of Chile dedicated to screening for microbial compounds of agricultural interest.
Science is exciting because it investigates and solves current problems and I can be a role model to further encourage girls and women to be leaders in STEM fields.
I am a woman, deaf and a soccer player, so it has taken me a lot to develop in society. The most difficult challenges are breaking stereotypes and encouraging others to do so, because women can also “do men’s things” and vice versa.
My role model is Marie Curie. She broke all the stereotypes of her time and made great scientific advances, such as radiotherapy, which has saved many people from dying of cancer.”
Marguerite Langwig – USA
My research utilizes metagenomics to understand microbial ecology in diverse ecosystems around the world.
My sense is that there are more women in science obtaining PhDs (in the United States) compared to the past 20-50 years. Though this is encouraging, several issues are still apparent; the majority of women obtaining PhDs are white, the number of female students is not necessarily reflected in faculty composition, and women are especially not reflected in academic leadership positions (e.g. department heads, full professors, directors, deans, etc.). I think the U.S. has a long way to go in making academic culture friendly to women so they are encouraged to stay, and even more work to do in recruiting and retaining underrepresented women. I am also discouraged by recent publications identifying biases in academic journals where manuscripts by female corresponding authors had more negative outcomes compared to male corresponding authored papers. Clearly there is room for improvement for women in STEM.”
Valerie De Anda – Mexico
I am a Research Associate at the University of Texas using computational biology to understand the microbial ecology of the deep sea and other extreme environments.
Being an underrepresented minority, I know what it feels like to come into this world competing in a race where I must start several kilometers behind others. Despite the undeniable progress that has been made with respect to women’s rights and equal opportunities, full gender equality is not yet a reality for female scientists especially in Latin America. I was born and raised in Mexico City, one of the most populated cities in the world, and one of the most dangerous countries for women with the highest rate of teenage pregnancy globally. Patriarchy is deeply rooted in Mexican society (machismo culture) and there is a high degree of sexualized violence, as well as a culture of masculine dominance over women, which may prevent women from making their own decisions. Unfortunately, this gender-based violence carries over into academia. Overall, as a woman in Mexico, you are not expected to pursue a scientific career. Despite these social barriers growing up and having no female role models in science, I decided to follow my passion to explore the wonders of the microbial world. This path hasn’t been easy. As a scientist, I have experienced microagressions, told that my work is not important, and have not been taken seriously because of my gender. I have seen friends, colleagues, and students suffer many challenges such as sexual harassment, discrimination, underrepresentation, stereotype bias, and bias in peer review. These types of experiences lead to the “leaky pipeline”, which is a metaphor that describes the progressive loss of women and underrepresented minorities in STEM throughout different career stages. Finally, work-life balance makes the scientific path for women very challenging. I think that improving the situation of women in science and other minorities is a collective task and a shared responsibility that can only be achieved if we work together. Some of the ways to generate awareness about the challenges faced by women in science are open dialogues and generating inclusive and safe spaces to encourage conversations about barriers and biases that women face (including this opportunity for an open dialogue, facilitated by FEMS). As scientists, our job is to promote and highlight the achievements of female scientists and advocate for initiatives that support women in science. I believe that making science more diverse and accessible, starts by awakening and empowering girls and underrepresented minorities that just need to see themselves reflected in real-life scientists.”