Women are severely underrepresented in scientific research and development around the world. Photo credit: BigstockURBANA, Ill., March 17 (IPS) – Over a month ago, the world celebrated International Day for Women and Girls in Science. The celebrations sound hollow, however, if significant progress has not yet been made in the representation of women in the research sciences. Currently, less than 30 percent of scientific researchers worldwide are women, a percentage that has been the same for nearly a decade.
Despite this delay, which has progressed consistently and predictably from the United Nations through professional societies to universities, the message is often shared that “every girl can be a scientist”. As a scientist who is very lucky to be in science because without luck, and I mean the luck of nature, I would never have been a scientist, I know that this statement is not true at the moment.
The truth is, how our societies and systems are built, that few girls, especially girls like me, in rural communities can ever be scientists. How do we expect them to be scientists without the resources and facilities to experience the magic of science? How do we expect them to get into science if they don’t have societal role models who look like them?
And even if they are lucky like me, how do we expect them to succeed when many end up in institutions that still grapple with a low representation of women in science? How?
These are the questions I struggle with every time I hear overly optimistic and unrealistic statements that are not supported by guidelines in support of those statements. In addition, it is also clear that the ongoing pandemic has exacerbated these challenges.
I am also an optimist and hope to see – want to see – an equal representation of women in the sciences. To get there, however, we need to envision and implement major changes.
First and foremost, resources and all necessary infrastructures must be used to introduce girls from all communities, including marginalized communities, to science. This means investing in the creation of research laboratories, community science centers and science museums.
These spaces provide excellent spaces for young and curious students, including girls, to interact with science. There are several science centers in the United States that do an excellent job. From the Maryland Science Center to the Orlando Science Center to the Museum of Science + Industry Chicago.
Alternatively, university institutions, research centers and other professional societies can work with organizations that are represented in marginalized communities in order to offer girls and women from marginalized communities the platforms for early access to science.
For example, the American Association for Advancement of Sciences has the Science Linkages in the Community Initiative, which works with and trains community-based partners to ensure that younger students have hands-on, research-based STEM activities. Museum rooms. Such programs should continue.
From my own experience I know what kind of access to the right infrastructures can be. I still remember my first day in a modern laboratory at Kenyatta University and how it fascinated and aroused my curiosity. Now imagine if we arouse curiosity about many more girls and at a younger age, the statistics will change.
Second, when exposed to science at a younger age, girls and women need concerted care, funding, and encouragement. The truth is science, like any other career, has its good days and bad. Mentoring programs that continue to support women in the early years and are likely to switch to other non-academic disciplines are required.
Mentors have played a crucial role in my journey as a scientist. They held my hand, supported me, and encouraged me at every milestone in my journey. We cannot afford to lose women through the pipeline.
Third, it is important that they be supported as they move further down the pipeline and into their early college years. Fully paid internships and mentoring programs during these phases are key. At the same time, funding and scholarships are vital so that you can devote most of your time while studying to pursuing science without having to work multiple jobs.
Thinking about my academic journey, funding through scholarships and grants from universities and numerous organizations including the American Association for University Women and the Schlumberger Faculty for the Future, has been very helpful. Without her, I couldn’t have afforded to stay and pursue a career in science.
There must also be a clear job pipeline at the bachelor’s level. Career offices and undergraduate programs should offer as many opportunities as possible so that these future scientists can learn and discover different avenues. At the graduate level, support, mentoring, and access to opportunity are also vital.
This is extremely important as it is at this point that many make the decision to either stay in academia or move on to other careers for good. Additional resources like scholarship writing courses could go a long way as well.
As soon as they have made it into a scientific career, be it at universities, research institutes or in private and technical companies, it is important to also be supported. Data shows that women researchers still face so many challenges – from sexism to jobs that are not diverse enough to inflexible working hours so that researchers can balance work and family.
Therefore, universities and workplaces should put in place guidelines to address these issues. When policies are in place, there must be key metrics on how they are tracking success and assessing whether the policies are working.
Let’s put the right guidelines and support systems in place to ensure that many more girls and women get involved in science and stay in it – then we can really celebrate.
Dr. Esther Ngumbi is an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign and a Senior Fellow in Food Security at the Aspen Institute, New Voices.
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