Perspectives: International Women's Day 2021 #ChooseToChallenge


From challenge comes change, so let’s all #ChooseToChallenge. This year, we celebrated International Women’s day, on the 8th of March, by bringing together 6 women researchers from different regions and career stages for a live conversation around women in science of the 21st century and how we choose to challenge. 

Before we dive deep into the topic lets quickly get to know the speakers and authors of this blog:

  • Hilary Lappin-Scott (@lappinscott) – FEMS President, Honorary Distinguished Professor at Cardiff University (UK), WISE Hero Award winner for her services to microbiology and the advancement of women in science and engineering
  • Branka Vasiljevic – FEMS Secretary General, Institute of Molecular Genetics and Genetic Engineering, University of Belgrade (Serbia) 
  • Ally Hughes (@fabhlach3592) – final year PhD student in Marine Biotechnology at the University of Strathclyde (Scotland), member of Women in Ocean Science 
  • Diana Githwe (@dianagithwe) – first year PhD Candidate at Newcastle University (UK), author of the blog An Abundance of Melanin
  • Sylvia Soldatou (@SylviaSoldatou) – Senior Postdoc at Robert Gordons University (Scotland), experience working as scientist in UK, USA, Ireland, and Greece 
  • Eglė Lastauskienė –  Associate Professor at Vilnius University Life Sciences Center (Lithuania), member of the Lithuanian Microbiological Society


What are the challenges faced by women in 2021? Has this changed in the last 10-15 years? Are issues/experiences different across Europe and the World?

I think we have come a long way with improving representation of women in science at high school, undergraduate, and even postgraduate level to an extent. This improvement is mostly seen in the biological sciences and we still have a long way to go with chemistry, physics, and other STEM subjects. But the Leaky Pipeline is obvious at higher levelsIn 2019 in the UK, only 4595 of 19,285 professors were women and only 35 of those were Black women. The same can be seen in industry, with another 2019 study showing that 47% of support staff were women whilst only 23% were executives. Some of the factors that influence this Leaky Pipeline is the lack of job security, poor maternity and parental policies for women wishing to have a family, and the pay gap that still exists between men and women.”Ally Hughes

Women in science still have to prove being worth to take certain positions, especially in the leadership. The man scientist is always counted as a good expert in his field but on the other hand a woman always needs to prove it. In Lithuania, we have way more female students in science, but at PhD level this proportion is changing and in the level of professors we have way more men. That’s why our today’s challenge is to continue with the education of the society, to create the environment equal for each person.”Eglé Lastaukiené

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In most countries and laboratories the further up the rank you go, it’s kind of that pyramid still,  leadership positions are still largely occupied by men. But the other challenge here, is that women that actually do get right to the top of that pyramid they are not featured as much or they are actually asked to do a lot more than men in the same positions. So as well as the day job, they get a lot on their shoulders ”ooh could you be the one who does this, can you be the one who comes and speaks on this issue” and that is very very difficult too. We need to make sure that women role models and successes are out there. For example, we’ve got Nobel prize winners in Chemistry, two women, for the first time ever this year – I’m delighted that Emmanuelle Charpentier will be speaking at our conference, the World Microbe Forum, in June. Such efforts, where women empower other women are very important and we need to challenge ourselves on a personal level and believe that we could reach the top of the pyramid as wellHilary Lappin-Scott 

 A lot has changed in the last 10-15 years on how women are perceived in the scientific community, but there is still a long way to go. I have worked in labs in UK, Ireland and USA and I have noticed that the challenges women face are common worldwide. Although there has been a great increase in the number of women at an undergraduate and postgraduate level, these numbers get lower in leading positions. This is something we need to challenge as women are constantly been asked to prove themselves in terms of skills and capabilities. Moreover, there is still the misconception that a woman will eventually have to choose between career and family, which discourages women to pursue leadership positions, however women are powerful and are perfectly capable of running a household and a lab!”Sylvia Soldatou


How can we expand our network as women? 

Stop selling yourself short! Women are much more likely to question their abilities, skills, and qualifications which can prohibit us from expanding our networks and putting ourselves out there professionally. Social media is a really invaluable tool for networking that doesn’t add as much pressure to women. Oftentimes networking happens in the pub after a meeting or workday, or at conferences that require money and travel to attend. Since women are much more likely to have caring responsibilities than their male counterparts, this type of networking can be prohibitory. Using social media, such as Twitter and Instagram, is a great way to get your name known within your field and highlight your work, but also a great way to connect with others in similar situations that can offer advice, feedback, and support. Creating a supportive community both professionally and personally is so important for our success and for our mental health and wellbeing.”Ally Hughes

When I was at the early career stage, I honestly thought it was enough to shut the lab door, to get my head down on the bench and just work work at getting good papers and good output, and I didn’t know anything about networking, and then suddenly you look up and think, you know I thought somebody might have noticed, and would there have been a chance for promotion? And then you find not a chance. And networking and how you can then use that network becomes a recipe for success. 

What I’ve done, for the last 3 or 4 FEMS Congresses, I run a session for Early Career Researchers and it’s about how to network, how to get the most from a conference. And this is one of the exact things I say ”Don’t sit there quietly thinking people will notice you because you are working hard, I did that, it doesn’t get you noticed at all.” It is about how can your advisors open doors for you, and pushing your advisors and mentors on that. Social media like you have said is such a good way forward, I’ve often met people at conferences, and have said “Hey I know you from Twitter!” and it’s a great way to do that.” – Hilary Lappin-Scott

You don’t know when/where is your chance, so try and network as much as possible, not only with scientists in your network but also with people outside of your field. If you are an academic then, keep contact with your former students, as they progress through their careers, move counties and meet other people. And on the other hand, if you are a student, don’t be afraid to show gratitude to your professors that have helped you and also don’t forget to network with them as well!”Branka Vasiljevic

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 Attending conferences is a great way of expanding our network, not only through presenting the research work but also participating in workshops and social activities organised during the conferences.  Workshops organised for ECRs are also a way to boost their confidence and show them that networking is not only talking about your science, but also about the soft skills one acquires during their studies which are as important. Most ECRs are intimidated by the idea of approaching senior scientists and introduce themselves. However, social media has helped people to connect, as it can create a more casual and less formal environment to chat to people speaking from personal experience Twitter has been the platform where I have interacted with scientists before meeting them in person. For example, twitter is where I found my fist postdoc and met a bioinformatician who creates YouTube tutorials and was interested to use data and figures from one of my papers that I had shared on my profile.”Sylvia Soldatou

The social media channels i.e. Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are great tools for meeting scientists and help expand your network. Maybe FEMS as an organization can step in in making the annual meetings, implementing mentoring system, to show the possibilities for the young scientists. Discussions, meetings, seminars and other activities online could contribute a lot in encouraging the women to find the new contacts and to share their knowledge and experience.” – Eglé Lastaukiené

 Utilise social media to their fullest extent! I have been so surprised at how large and welcoming the science community is on Instagram and Twitter. There are women in different fields of science, all around the world showcasing their work and the general ‘PhD/scientist lifestyle’. It’s been so great connecting with people who I’m not able to meet in person due to location and COVID restrictions and creating such vibrant networks. The great thing is, if you can’t find a network you feel a part of, you feel motivated to create one online to bring other women together in your own wonderful way.” – Diana Githwe


What are the difficulties for scientists who are mothers attending a conference?

In my case, I had a child very early on when I was appointed as an academic, and at the time it wasn’t possible to take any paid leave at all. If I wanted to go to a conference, and I did go in his first year, I had to get family members to come and stay in the house and help. I think, recently there have been improvements regarding mothers attending conferences, for example I have seen some societies offering funding for this. It’s now more common to see young children in a conference venue, it’s more common that there might be a crèche facility there and frequently this is subsidized as well. So all in all, there have been improvements, but still is very difficult and we certainly don’t want to see that disadvantaging women at all” – Hilary Lappin-Scott

I am a mother of 2 kids and personally, I had to stop travelling to the conferences and internships for few years. COVID19 showed us the remote participation opportunities, but attending the scientific events is about building up the scientific contact network as well. And this can’t be done remotelyJust a little push from the side of the funding could make the big difference in the ability to travel with the kids and to attend the conferences.” Eglé Lastaukiené

They may limit their options in which conferences they decide to attend. For example, a colleague of mine preferred to attend conferences which were within max 4 hours flight from home so they could get back home in case they had to (knock on wood). This limitation can be related with networking opportunitiesbecause the mother who will make such choice immediately has a disadvantage over another scientist who can attend meetings further away, thus having more opportunities in meeting new people. Such issue can be solved by providing funding dedicated to mothers for attending conferencesAlthough in recent years it has become more common to see mothers with their children in conference venues, there are still ECRs who might feel uncomfortable doing so in fear of not being considered “professional””. Sylvia Soldatou


How does the representation of women of colour intersects with the wider representation of women in science

For a long time, we have been fighting against misogyny and stereotypes for gender equality to be established in all areas of life including science which is often a very male-dominated field. However, we must recognise the intersections of race and class when we speak about female representation. It’s not outrageous to assume that these key factors can form a barricade as to who’s actually granted equality because there is a very visible totem pole in all workplaces. And as sad as it sounds, that’s the very reason I even chose to pursue a PhD because I am very aware that to achieve the goals I have, it’ll be extremely difficult without a title to back up my capability. So, that’s where equity comes into place.

Women of colour unfortunately aren’t afforded the same opportunities in science, even when it comes to closing the gender gap, that’s why there is 20% gap between White female and ethnic minority females in the make-up of the STEM workforce. The issues of race and class must be discussed when making decisions about gender equality. It starts with a results-based conversation. It’s not enough to just recognise the issue but the people who can make a large impact must address them by having a plan of action of how to tackle the issue.” – Diana Githwe

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It’s important for women to advocate for one another and support one another. This is particularly true when it comes to Black women who are one of the most discriminated and marginalised groups in our community. As women we stand on the shoulders of giants that have fought for our rights and now is the time for White women in more privileged positions to offer their shoulders for others to stand on. We must stand together and demand rights for ALL women. We should not expect our colleagues from different ethnic backgrounds to carry the burden of a system that was purposefully built to disadvantage them. We all need to put the work into understanding the colonial influence on our systems, the effect that has had on people of colour, and how we can make STEM a more inclusive environment for everyone.”Ally Hughes

One thing that’s very much on my mind as FEMS President is the participation and representation of women of colour, and also how that intersects with wider representation and participation of women in science. You’ve made some really good points around ensuring women of colour can participate, are supported and are listened to and given a voice. And with representation, it’s role models again that are so key, who we can see at the front of the room, who are speaking, it really makes a big difference. You’re right to remind us, those of us who are senior white women, that we are privileged, and it is part of our job, and for someone like myself to recognize that being a senior white women as well brings privileges. So for me and for others like me, we have to challenge, we have to raise voices as well, use your voices, and call it out and absolutely #ChooseToChallange” – Hilary Lappin-Scott 


How are female scientists being perceived and represented in media and in the world? 

For me, this issue has been particularly noticeable in news coverage around the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientists and experts are often invited onto TV and radio and it is frustrating how often women are not given their correct titles or not have their positions clearly describedIn 2021, the Wall Street Journal published an article suggesting that Dr. Jill Biden, Ed.D. drop her “Dr.” title, proclaiming that it “feels fraudulent, even comic” before calling her “kiddo” in the following sentence. This actually led to a movement on social media for women to change their Twitter handles to include Dr/Prof to demonstrate that our accomplishments and positions are deserving of respect. It is frankly ridiculous that on top of the gender pay gap, sexual harassment in the workplace, and relentless misogyny, that we also have to defend our right to use a title that we have rightfully earned and should be respected.”Ally Hughes

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I was thinking about the language that’s used about women, and thinking of so many experiences women have shared with me.  For example, men using words like ”bossy” or ”feisty” to describe women.  Do you ever hear of a man called feisty?! On a separate note, personally what I do to empower women and their opinions, is I look for ways in meetings to emphasise some of the points that women have made, especially if their point has been ignored, and help to magnify the opinions of women in meetings. For example I might say, ”ooh that was a great point that Ally made, thank you very much”. Working in that way, to give support to other women that are in the room,calling out when we see a woman ignored, really makes a difference and then you see more people find a voice.” Hilary Lappin-Scott

To add on what has already been mentioned; there are many cases where women who hold a PhD and/or an academic position are still not considered equal to their male colleagues either as a result of unconscious bias or cultural attributes. We need to stand for one another and support each other. We need to overcome our fears to call out someone who is not giving credit to the woman in the room. People in leading positions should set an example for such situations (as Hillary mentioned) to inspire and encourage the younger generation.”Sylvia Soldatou

The narrative around women in science is so far-fetched sometimes. That’s why more often than not we hear the “Oh you don’t look like a scientist” response when someone asks us what we do. Especially now when people are looking to explore other passions and interests outside of science, it’s time to normalise being an everyday, all-rounded person who happens to be a scientist too. Once that happens, women won’t feel ashamed to claim their titles and recognition for their work in addition to having other hobbies, feeling empowered to bring in other skills and qualities into their scientific work. – Diana Githwe


How can we encourage the career transition of women moving from academia to industry and government? 

About 65% of my PhD students have been female, and a lot of the funding I got was from businesses and industry and as a fact, as a PhD/Postdoc you have loads of skills that are transferable in to the world of business and industry! I think a good way to encourage this career transition is to erode the barriers between what the different jobs are, for example, by inviting visitors to your lab from industry, introducing your lab to people working in different companies, encourage people with different professions to give presentations to students. 

Here at FEMS we set up some new initiatives around Policy and working with businesses. And I’m thinking, what about women being entrepreneurs and taking their science ideas and setting up their own businesses. And I’m really thrilled that over the last months we’ve taken this new initiative and that in our conference in June, we will be having some discussion with businesses about how we can support women to be entrepreneurs and to set up businesses too.” – Hilary Lappin-Scott 

The new FEMS initiative in business and policy, is trying to connect people who are microbiologists and work in industry with ultimate aim to find a way to engage better with industry. In the aspect of encouraging career transition to industry, we need to show to young microbiologist good role models so they can demonstrate to them this move but also how they can be successful in establishing their own companies. 

I work in a country where our industry is almost destroyed because only big international companies come here. We need to encourage more people who have their own ideas and business plans to interact with industry. FEMS is a good platform to establish this academia-industry network across Europe. And it is very important for women to also find a role in this and be part of business and industry. I hope with their working group we can have a more plan of what needs to be done in the future to make the connection between academia and industry in microbiology more solid.” – Branka Vasiljevic

Supervisors need to remind themselves that not everyone is willing to follow an academic career and that’s completely OK. They shouldn’t discriminate between students who have decided to follow an academic path and those who would like to move to a different sector. They should put the same effort in introducing their lab members to their extended network. The universities should also host workshops and seminars to inform their under/grad students and postdocs of job opportunities outside academia.” – Sylvia Soldatou


How do we challenge FEMS and ourselves to do more on encouraging and supporting women? 

It has been great to see FEMS actively working to improve the representation of women across their journals, awards, and social media over the past couple of years. Continued effort on this front is needed to keep momentum going and better representation of people of colour should also be a focus moving forward. FEMS has a huge amount of power with over 50 member societies that are governed by FEMS statutes. FEMS can apply pressure on other societies across Europe to improve representation and diversity within their own ranks and encourage them to make meetings and conferences more accessible for women (e.g., options for online meetings, pre-recorded talks, childcare facilities, networking within standard working hours). I would also love to see FEMS having a more active role in reporting the issues faced by their community. For example, surveys and reports on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected women from their member societies, or a census on how diverse the FEMS community is in terms of gender identity, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Exposing the true representation across the member societies and identifying areas for improvement is the first step, proposing and following through with action is even more important.”Ally Hughes

Image by Kirsty Gordon, Graphic Designer @bykirstygordon

I think it starts from the ground up. Making children aware of the roles available for women in science by presenting amazing role models that look like them. It’s creating opportunities and initiatives that help women gain access to different parts of the scientific industry, so that we’re not told we’re inexperienced for a certain role. Saying that, it’s important to make these opportunities accessible to all women despite financial, physical and mental circumstances. It all comes down to money and utilising funds for equitable and actionable change.” – Diana Githwe

If you are too shy to make big steps and huge moves forward, just start from the little things. Making the small challenges each day, step by step is helping a lot. That’s how we made challenges in our country in the policy: for example, the salaries and maternity leaves. Challenge Yourself as well. – Eglé Lastaukiené

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