Women are half the population, but only a very small percentage of the scientists. This is certainly not due to lack of ability; there is certainly no lack of innate ability: from Marie Curie, the first person ever to win two Nobel Prizes, to Maria Goeppert-Mayer, to Rita Levi-Montalcini to Rosalyn Yalow to Barbara McClintock to Linda Buck … the honor roll of women scientists winning the Nobel Prize is clear testimony that such biases are not only unfounded—they are insulting.
Luckily, the statistics are changing and tomorrow will be different. Many more women are now registering in science in universities and graduate schools all over the world. But more will have to be done. It is not easy to acknowledge the biases against women scientists today. But we must address that too. Redressing this situation is part of the overall struggle of women everywhere for dignity and equality. A recognition of their common humanity.
There is no doubt that women everywhere are discriminated against. In primary and basic education, the gender gap is systematically against girls wherever it exists. In employment, there are many disparities in many parts of the world. Traditional societies tend to be overwhelmingly patriarchal. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, women farmers produce 80% of the food and yet receive about 10% of the wage income and own about 1% of the land.Let us recognize that no society has progressed without making a major effort at empowering its women, through education and the end of discrimination.
Why should we be concerned?
Because it is fundamentally wrong. Discrimination is never right, in any context. Prejudice does not serve society well, neither by its existence, nor by its results. Even more, it speaks poorly of scientists and the manner in which they practice science if they do not address biases and fight the inherent discrimination in their midst. The practice of science requires the adoption of certain values; "the values of science", and such values cannot co-exist with sexism or bigotry. These are the same values of science eloquently described by Jacob Bronowski in his classic on Science and Human Values:
Truth: No scientist would ever be forgiven the reporting of false data.
Honor: The second most heinous crime is plagiarism.
A constructive subversiveness: Science advances by having a new paradigm overthrow the old, or at least expand its applicability in new ways.
Tolerance plus engagement: The very openness of science to the new means that there is a tolerance of the contrarian view—provided that it can be backed up by evidence, subjected to the rigorous test of replication and meet the Popperian falsifiability criterion.
An established method to settle disputes: Scientists everywhere are willing to accept the arbitration of disputes by the testing of hypothesis and accumulation of evidence.
Imagination: We value the imagination of those who break the mold, and open new vistas, not just those who add at the margin.
As Bronowski observed, independence, originality and therefore dissent—these are the hallmarks of the progress of contemporary science and contemporary civilization. In parallel, the scientific community has learned to be wary of bias for its corrosive effects on the practice of science. Recognizing the presence of gender bias is the hardest one of all.
Obstacles to Women in Science
There are many obstacles, but they can be grouped into five broad themes:
Double standard: Women are assumed to be the assistants of men, not their peers, much less their leaders; women have to prove themselves time and again before being assumed to be the equal of men.
Barriers to access and advancement: There is a universal discrimination against the girl child in many parts of the developing world, with enrolment and graduation rates lagging boys. Then subtle and not so subtle societal pressures operate to reduce their attendance at science and mathematics courses in higher education facilities.
General discrimination: Sometimes this discrimination takes the form of not giving women the opportunity to lead the team, and thus perpetually keep them from the visibility and experience that would help them get recognition and promotions. Sometimes it is motivated by a view that women are the secondary wage earner in the family, or because of a fear that they may marry and leave work and so on … All the usual efforts at justifying discrimination, yet, most regretfully, it is so pervasive as to be almost unnoticed.
Social ostracism: Much of the networking that helps people advance in their chosen careers occurs at social gatherings where women have frequently been denied entry.
Psychological barriers: Prejudice often carries onto the mind of the victim.
The Task Ahead
We need to empower women in every domain, and science is no exception. We must do so because empowerment of women is the key to all development; because discrimination is wrong in any domain; and because science cannot discriminate against women and remain true to the values of science, to its own moral code of objectivity.
In many places today, it is not legal discrimination that we confront. We are now up against subtle, and not so subtle, discriminatory behavior that needs changing. An inviting nurturing work environment where women are allowed to grow to their full potential is a necessary antidote to the conditions of our world today. This is not a favor we do to women; it is simply a recognition of their basic human rights, and an affirmation of the values of science and the scientific method.
We need to provide a working environment that responds to women's needs, enhance support, provide mentoring and ensure encouragement in order that the talented women scientists of tomorrow can truly blossom to full potential.
Today, we are sustained more by networks than by individuals. So let us establish these networks, let us strengthen those that exist. Let us reach out to the women who are not yet reached by such supportive and nurturing networks.
We must not only mobilize women, we must also educate men. We must hold up mirrors that show them society as it really is, and open windows through which they can see the world as it can be. We cannot focus on building and empowering the women of tomorrow without worrying about re-educating the men of yesterday.
The obstacles are large, but they are not insurmountable. The journey is long, but women have already come a long way, and men are increasingly recognizing their responsibilities to help remove the many obstacles that still prevent women scientists from rising to their full potential and to give society the full measure of their talent.