Today we celebrate women and girls in science. This day allows us to direct more attention to the still ongoing inequalities between genders in academia, and continue working together towards a day when gender biases and discrimination are defeated worldwide. At The Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden (MIMS), female scientists describe what it means for them to be a female scientist.
Text: Nora Lehotai
Female reserachers at MIMS reflects on gender on International Day Women and Girls in Science.
On a global level, women in STEM positions (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) are still rare and according to the UN, only 30 percent of researchers are women. They publish less, get paid less and their careers also progress slower and often not as far as for men.
Scientists at The Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden, MIMS were asked to fill out a survey, anonymously, on what it means for them to be a female scientist, and more than half of the participants answered that “I am a scientist, no matter which gender," while others thought:
“It means I appreciate all female scientists that have broken down the barriers before me and given me a seat at the table. I am also aware of the work we still have to do, the mentoring of young female scientists to ensure that e.g., faculty positions become much more gender balanced.”
If me being a female scientist can encourage a child to be one, then that's amazing.
“I never thought that gender played a role in being good at a certain career, but I learned that subconsciously kids can be conditioned to think that jobs are for a certain gender just because if you google 'scientist' mostly photos of men come up. If me being a female scientist can encourage a child to be one, then that's amazing.”
The importance of role models
Role models inspire us towards new goals and guide us to believe in ourselves, so we can reach those goals. Hence, they are of key importance in our lives. For the researchers in the MIMS survey, these were some of those exceptional women who served as inspiration to step into science:
"Dyann Wirth, American immunologist, world-leading malaria researcher"
"Emmanuelle Charpentier, Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry in 2020 for the CRISPR-CAS-9 genome editing system, previous MIMS group leader"
“My mom. Because of her, early on, I never thought that STEM jobs are not for women”
"Katalin Karikó, American-Hungarian scientist, whose expertise in the field of RNA research made possible the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine"
"Marie Skłodowska Curie, Polish-French physicist and the rest is history"
"Barbara Mcclintock, American scientist and cytogeneticist, “for her perseverance and faith in what she was doing”, whoalso got awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983 for her discovery in mobile genetic elements"
“A previous PI, mentor”
“Each and every woman in science for their contribution, especially back in the days when it was so hard to succeed in the scientific community”
Raising awareness to bridge the gender gap
Motivated, courageous girls stepped into the scientific world and became researchers. When thinking about their future in science as a woman, about one third of them said they were scared, but this fear did not discourage them, rather the opposite. Pursuing a scientific career and keeping the private life part balanced, the family happy, can become a burden specific to women because “we, women, still carry the lion share of mental load and practical responsibilities in the home” as one participant in the survey summarized it. All questioned women agreed that the support of your partner and family, combined with time management at the most effective level, are crucial components to achieve a career in science (or in any other profession).
Could the gender gap be bridged by offering more workshops and discussion directed towards women, spreading awareness at an early point in their career? Most participants said that this could be a useful tool. Interestingly, they also think that these options should target men as well, and especially men in such positions where they have decision-making power on someone else's career at an early stage. This would allow increasing general awareness and understanding of the dilemmas and difficulties one can face as a woman throughout her career. If mentoring can start right in the beginning of someone’s career, its impact will multiply in the long run.
Diversity in research plays a critical role. The ongoing covid-19 pandemic is just yet another example of women showing incredible strength and courage to turn this extremely difficult situation into something better by using their knowledge and skills in science, technology and innovation.
The MIMS scientists also delivered motivating messages for young girls who might be hesitant about going for science.
"I can just cite Barbara Mcclintock: If you know that you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off, no matter what they say"
“You can do it and science needs you!”
“Ain't no mountain high enough” - just do science.”
“It takes courage to change the world. “
“Find out if you have the passion for it, if yes do not hesitate.”
Researchers at MIMS and gender
The Laboratory for Molecular Infection Medicine Sweden, MIMS, has the gender balance of 60 women and 50 men, at current. The Global Health unit of Umeå University received the highest ranking for gender equality in 2019, recognized by the Global Health 50/50 Initiative. Their efforts are part of Umeå University’s joint approach for gender equality.
You can read more about this topic by visiting the website of United Nations, the organization of Women in Science Day or the website of Umeå University: