The UN General Assembly declared 11th February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, aiming to achieve full and equal access to participation in science for women and girls. This is vital for achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals adopted by world leaders in September 2015. A recent survey conducted in 14 countries found that compared to men, women are half as likely to graduate with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree, and one-third as likely to graduate with a doctorate in a science-related field.
“We need to encourage and support girls and women achieve their full potential as scientific researchers and innovators” (UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres)
Although a wide range of factors influence the careers of women in science, perhaps disproportionately in comparison to men, this article aims to highlight some of the achievements made by women in science, and some personal observations during the course of my career in science. It also highlights principles that apply equally to men and women, and the fact that anyone can work to their best potential if they commit to working with integrity and honesty, and observing a high level of ethical conduct in their careers.
As someone who loved the biological sciences since early high school, and who grew up in a household where male and female siblings were in equal proportion, I was blessed to have parents who were education professionals each in their own right, and who encouraged (in fact, expected) us all to excel in our respective fields and professional pursuits. Gender bias may have existed, but it did not affect the way I saw myself or others in terms of career goals or simply being the best I could be. As expressed by Prof Michelle Simmons in her recent acceptance speech on receiving the 2018 Australian of the Year award, believing what others think of you can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Significant contributions by women to science and medicine go back centuries. Although women were excluded from university education in the earliest emergence of universities, some countries were more liberal than others. The first woman to chair a scientific field was Laura Maria Caterina Bassi, a physicist and academic, in the late 18th century in Italy. Segregated women’s colleges arose in the 19th century, and in 1903 Marie Curie was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, which was in physics. She then went on to receive another in 1911 for chemistry, and her work on radiation is well renowned.
Although a total of forty women have been awarded the Nobel Prize by 2010, not all women can or wish to pursue this level of achievement. Many women are scientists because they love it, and simply enjoy discovery and want to do great science. Prof Michelle Simmons rightly stated “women think differently, and that diversity of thought is invaluable to technological research and development”. We all know that scientific research needs to be approached from many different angles, and this can only enhance the findings and lend credibility to research outcomes as a whole. Prof Simmons also did not believe in “mandating equal numbers of men and women in every job”. It is just as wrong to hire on the basis of gender as any other characteristic, unless that characteristic helps to advance the field. Girls and boys in early education should have the same opportunity to develop their potential in STEM disciplines without bias or stereotyping. Their differences will shine in positive ways if they are encouraged to develop their talents, whatever that may be.
I have been in science for 35 years, and all except one of my supervisors were women, although this was not my objective. This is not counting my PhD advisory committee who were all men, and whom I chose because they were the best mentors for me. One in particular, a statistics professor who also served on the FDA CardioRenal Advisory Board, has remained someone I respect and admire because of his fierce and unwavering ethical stance on many issues, particularly the interpretation of clinical trial data. When I approached him, he surveyed me skeptically as yet another epidemiology student needing a statistics professor on her committee. By the end of the interview, he was completely disarmed in his attitude towards me, and from that point on it was evident that we had struck common ground in our views on ethics in science. The earned respect was mutual, and being an ‘older’ PhD student at the time, I was not intimidated by his occasional ‘wrath’ over issues of scientific misconduct and poor data interpretation.
But I digressed! Getting back to the women who were my supervisors, I was fortunate to have had many who were excellent role models and mentors over the years. Some of the most outstanding qualities I have observed in successful women in science is the ability to be organized, to multi-task, and to lead by example. Honesty and integrity, discipline, respect for employees’ personal lives, fairness, challenging junior scientists to excel and giving them space to develop their thinking skills while offering calm and constructive guidance, and giving credit where credit is due, are some of the characteristics I have valued most in the women in science who were my mentors.
I also often bring to mind a situation where a difficult decision needed to be made, and a senior female scientist who overheard me discussing this, came over and whispered to me ‘To thine own self be true’. This has remained with me over the years and continues to ring true in many situations. But it takes courage and conviction to apply this and requires weighing up the pros and cons of each individual circumstance where a decision has to be made.
There are certain principles that should govern all aspects of our life, whether in family life at home, or in our working environments, or in our relationships. The measure of the person is the consistency of this in all walks of life. There may be times when you are challenged to stand up for your principles, and doing so can cost you your standing on a committee, or your reputation. But can you sleep at night knowing you were not true to yourself or the research you love and for which you strive for excellence?
I have often thought of how best to explain ‘leadership by example’. The golden rule, ‘do to others as you would have them do unto you’ comes to mind. The sorts of people who issue edicts that they themselves either cannot or will not fulfill, are those who rarely gain the respect of their peers, at least not in science. Those who criticize others and demand what they themselves cannot deliver, while blinded to their own incompetence, do not make good leaders in any field.
It is also important for women in science to take care of their personal lives and pay attention to work-life balance. This has also recently received attention in a highly visible journal article. As a scientist you need to have clarity of thought. Few things can cloud the mental landscape and your research progress more than a personal life that is disorganized and in disarray. This takes work and discipline, as well as considerable support from family and close friends. It is not your sole responsibility as a woman to organize everyone, but like your supervisory role in science, delegating responsibility in a kind and supportive way, while not shunning it yourself, is critical to success.
As part of ethical conduct, keeping your word is also important to your success as a scientist. I have had colleagues who offer to do a job, and they not only never get it done, but their mind seems to go blank when it is brought to their attention, usually in an effort to think of an excuse. We all forget things at times, and to err is human. Taking responsibility for something you overlooked will enhance your credibility far more than making excuses. Eventually excuses will be embarrassingly in limited supply, and the cold hard facts of your unreliability will cost more than you realize. So don’t go there. Take ownership for both your achievements and your failures.
Some final characteristics I have valued in the women in science whom I’ve known personally, particularly here in Australia, are conviction, graciousness, humility, humanity, and a sense of humor. These will elicit loyalty and support, and the willingness of your staff to voluntarily go the extra mile like no pay rise will. I believe this is the icing on the cake that will go a long way in attracting the best and brightest scientists to your team.
Finally, there is so much more women in science can do to advance their respective goals, by simply being true to themselves and not trying to be what they are not. Careers in scientific and medical research are universally known as a ‘hard slog’, and participation by women will continue to bring to science those qualities that enrich the tapestry of human endeavor.
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