[OPINION] Creating Better Environments For Women Scientists

11 February marks The International Day of Women and Girls in Science which recognizes the critical role women and girls play in science and technology (Image: pikisuperstar/freepik)


By Dr Chai Lay Ching

Women have long been active members of the scientific community, with a fair few scientists getting international recognition for their work in advancing a particular scientific field. Women scientists have also been at the forefront in the race to find a vaccine for COVID-19 with scientists like Dr Özlem Türeci, Professor Sarah Gilbert, Professor Katalin Karikó, Dr Kizzmekia Corbett and Dr Nita Patel making good headway in their quest. 

While they, and other scientists, were hard at work to find the vaccine last year, the scientific community was delighted over the announcement of women scientists honoured with the most prestige scientific award, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Physics. Both Dr Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr Jennifer A. Doudna won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on Crispr-Cas9, a genetic tool that could be used in cancer treatment; while Dr Andrea Ghez was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for her research in supermassive black hole in the galaxy. 

Over the last 126 years, since the first establishment of Nobel Prize in 1895, very few women scientists have been awarded this prestigious prize despite their significant contributions. Drs Charpentier and Doudna are the sixth and seventh women scientists to receive a Nobel Prize in Chemistry respectively while Dr Ghez is the fourth woman scientist to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics. Although this achievement charts an important milestone in pushing for gender equality in science, and proves that women play an equally important role in science, a lot more needs to be done to remove the stigma and improve female representation in science globally.

When it comes to the question of gender equality in the sciences in Malaysia, we are getting there but there is still a lot of work to be done. Although statistics from Ministry of Higher Education in 2015 showed that 48.6% of researchers in Malaysia are female, which seems to be quite a balanced percentage, gender equality is not just about a fair distribution as it has many dimensions to the concept. 

Generally, women scientists still face many challenges in progressing in their careers due to their work-home conflict and motherhood. The culture and social norms that expect women to be the major caregiver of the family contribute significantly to the gender differences in the participation and progress of women who have careers in the science arena. 

Workplace culture and practices, such as organisational hierarchy, promotion criteria, performance assessment and leadership could also lead to systematic disadvantage for women scientists. All of these could demotivate and affect the self-confidence of women scientists, particularly those who are at the onset of their career, which results in them shying away from various awards.

One of the biggest takeaways from the 2020 pandemic is that the sciences is the field to watch. We need to ensure that governance and opportunities for women scientists are on the same spectrum as their male counterparts. We need scientists, including our male counterparts, to be more active in pushing for the women in science agenda as support from the entire scientific community is crucial in creating a better environment for women scientists. 

We need female role models and strong leaders who could inspire, motivate and affect change in the systems. While there are many globally, we actually don’t need to look very far for women scientists who are role models- Academician Distinguished Professor Datuk Dr Looi Lai Meng FASc, Professor Datuk Dr Asma Ismail FASc, Academician Emerita Professor Dato’ Seri Dr Mazlan Othman FASc, Professor Dato’ Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman FASc and Dr Cheong Sok Ching FASc are some of the many women scientists who are the pride of our nation and who have created personal and national firsts. 

Women scientists have proven, despite the challenging environment they operate out of, that they are able to thrive and have proven to the world many times over that women can rock science! I hope that the environment becomes more conducive for women scientists in years to come and that a level playing field will allow them to make new advances in their area of science.

Happy International Day of Women and Girls in Science!

Dr Chai Lay Ching is the Chairperson of the Young Scientist Network-Academy of Sciences Malaysia and Senior lecturer at the Faculty of Science, Universiti Malaya. 

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Science Media Centre Malaysia

**All previous posts about COVID-19 here: https://sciencemediacentremalaysia.com/tag/covid-19/

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