YESTERDAY was International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Declared by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, this day focuses on the reality that science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of internationally agreed development goals, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Women have long been active members of the scientific community and a fair number have received international recognition for their work in advancing their respective fields.
Women scientists such as Dr Özlem Türeci and Professor Sarah Gilbert are at the forefront in the race to find vaccines for Covid-19.
Last year, the scientific community was delighted with the announcement of women scientists being awarded the most prestigious science award, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Physics. They were Dr Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr Jennifer A. Doudna, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work on Crispr-Cas9, a genetic tool that could be used in cancer treatment; and Dr Andrea Ghez who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for her research on super-massive black holes in the Milky Way galaxy.
Very few women scientists have been awarded this prestigious prize despite their significant contributions. Dr Charpentier and Dr Doudna are only the sixth and seventh women scientists to receive a Nobel Prize in Chemistry while Dr Ghez is the fourth woman 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 improve female representation in science globally.
When it comes to achieving gender equality in science in Malaysia, we are getting there, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Statistics from the Higher Education Ministry in 2015 showed that 48.6% of researchers in Malaysia are women, which seems to be quite a balanced percentage. However, gender equality is not just about numbers.
Generally, women scientists still face many challenges progressing in their careers due to their work-home conflict and motherhood. Cultural and social norms that expect women to be the main caregiver of the family contribute significantly to the gender difference in the participation and progress of women in science.
Workplace culture and practices, such as organisational hierarchy, performance assessment and leadership, could also lead to systematic disadvantages for women scientists. All of these could affect the self-confidence of women scientists, particularly those who are at the onset of their career.
One of the biggest takeaways from the Covid-19 pandemic is that science is the field to watch. As such, we need to ensure that governance and opportunities for women scientists are on the same spectrum as their male counterparts. We need to be more active in pushing for our women in science agenda because support from the entire scientific community is crucial in creating a better environment for women scientists.
We need female role models and strong leaders to inspire, motivate and effect changes, and we actually don’t need to look far for them. Professor Datuk Dr Looi Lai Meng, Professor Datuk Dr Asma Ismail, Emeritus Professor Datuk Seri Dr Mazlan Othman, Professor Datuk Dr Adeeba Kamarulzaman and Dr Cheong Sok Ching are some of the many women scientists who are the pride of our nation.
Women scientists have proven, despite the challenging environment they operate in, that they can rock science!
Happy International Day of Women and Girls in Science!
DR CHAI LAY CHING
Young Scientist Network
Academy of Sciences Malaysia