Perspectives: Listening to Women and Girls in Science – where are we?


Gender equality is a global challenge and a priority at FEMS. The International Day of Women and Girls in Science, celebrated on 11 February, was implemented by UNESCO to promote women and girls in science. This day is a great opportunity to analyse the status of the scientific community and look at how gender equality develops. Dr Sarah Wettstadt talked to women scientists from different career stages about their experiences in the scientific community.


At FEMS we are convinced that some of the most effective actions that organisations can do to attract more women into STEM subjects and support them in their careers involve raising the visibility of women in the field and celebrating their contributions and achievements.


It was fantastic this year to see the Nobel Prize for Chemistry awarded to two female researchers for the first time.” – Hilary Lappin-Scott, FEMS President


To highlight the critical role women play in the scientific community, we talked to several women scientists that are at different levels of their career stage. Here, we wanted to highlight their opinions on the position of women in the scientific community.


Gender equality in the scientific and academic community

Our cohort of women scientists all agreed that in the scientific community all genders should feel accepted, respected and embraced. Neither biological makeup nor gender identity should impact a person’s standing or success in the scientific community. Additionally, it is important that women have equal access and real opportunities to every academic position including the ones with greater responsibilities, thinks Dr Patricia Bernal, Principal Investigator at the Universidad de Sevilla.


Regardless of gender identity, everyone should feel welcomed into the world of science as their authentic self.”Dr Rachel Burckhardt, Scientific Literature Review at the American Society for Microbiology.


To Charlotte Webber, PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, gender equality also means equality of opportunity. People of all genders (and no gender) should have the opportunity to receive information, training and the support to access the academic community.

When it comes to judging scientific output, it is generally agreed upon that women scientists should receive the recognition for their work based on the integrity and contribution and not based on their gender.

Dr Chloe Goldsmith, postdoctoral research fellow at the French Institute for Health and Medical Research, thinks that the discrimination against women of child-bearing age is a systemic issue in science and academia. Pregnant women being punished and having to return grants is one of the factors that keep women out of top positions and prevents them from rising in academia in a similar way to men.



Many directions to embrace gender equality in the scientific community

While the scientific community still suffers from gender inequality, this should not stop us from promoting it to women and girls, thinks Dr Noémie Matthey, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Lausanne. We need to encourage curiosity about STEM in girls and young women, which will help us break job-related gender bias. Similarly, we need to increase awareness of gender inequality since women and girls might have to face inappropriate and discouraging judgements on their life choices.


We need more collaboration and less competition. This competition has led to a massive gender, race, and class divide and as a community we should focus more on collaborative efforts to understand our world and shape the future.” – Alison Hughes, PhD Student at University of Strathclyde


Also Dr Rachel Burkhardt thinks that institutions need to recognize and remove barriers to entry in academia and create a more supportive environment for persons with diverse needs. This means that the scientific community must be proactive in rectifying gender disparities through gender bias training and increased mentoring of female scientists.

We should also create spaces where female voices are heard and valued. Dr Marta Gabryelska, postdoctoral researcher at the Flinders University, thinks that members of scientific communities should be able to anonymously add concerns and propose solutions and discuss their progression on a regular basis.


Female scientists must be present in all research fields, in any level of the scientific career ladder and in the same proportion as men.” – Dr Patricia Bernal


Many women scientists also face the issue of mental health awareness which needs to be openly addressed and discussed. Chloe adds that we need more research and support for problems faced by women in terms of health.


Supporting women and girls in science

We asked our cohort of women scientists about how they would like to see women and girls supported and the general answer was clear:

They want women to be heard and have them tell their stories.


Creating networking opportunities and mentoring programs for early-stage career women paired with later-stage career women for career advice and guidance would be a great option, thinks Rachel.


I would like to see support through empowerment – providing self-avocation skills training and inspiration from other successful female scientists.” – Charlotte Webber


Others ask for psychological support, the ability to contact someone when they experience discrimination at work, or training in gender bias. The last point is especially important for the publishing culture: Alison says open access publishing should be supported together with publishing blog-style articles or podcasts to easier digest scientific content. Professional bodies could do better with giving visibility to female scientists on social media, journals or conferences.

One strategy to support women and especially mothers could be to extend maternity and paternity leave, childcare services or their funding, working from home and flexible work schedules. Most women agree that such support needs to also cover working mothers and women in positions of power.

To bring young women into the scientific community, we need to start earlier. Professional bodies could help exposing girls to science and science-related activities by supporting scientific internships or workshops thinks Noémie. Also supporting women at undergraduate and graduate levels with special scholarships could be a feasible option, adds Rachel.


Women and Girls in Science

Hilary Lappin-Scott notices that change is happening although there is still a long way to go. In UK universities, 25% of Professors are now women and increasing numbers of women are being promoted to the most senior levels in universities. A gender pay gap, which is substantial in many organisations, remains. She adds, that there is still a need for campaigns to encourage women into STEM subjects and for assistance and support to retain them in the longer-term.

Listening to women’s voices helps us understand where we are and what we can do next. All together, we can take the next steps and close the gap of gender equality in science. We can only hope that one day, women don’t have to shout anymore for their voices to be heard!


About the author of this blog

Dr Sarah Wettstadt is a microbiologist-turned science writer and communicator working on various outreach projects and helping researchers talk and write about their scientific results. Her overall vision is to empower through learning: she shares scientific knowledge with both scientists and non-scientists and coaches scientists in writing about their research. Sarah is blog commissioner for the FEMSmicroBlog and was a social media editor for FEMS for 1.5 years. Previous to her science communication career, she worked as a postdoc in Marían Llamas’ lab on Pseudomonas aeruginosa’s ability to use heterologous iron sources and completed her PhD with Alain Filloux investigating the type 6 secretion system in Pseudomonas aeruginosa.



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