Breaking gender stereotypes in the field of science

Close your eyes and imagine what a scientist looks like. If you thought of an Albert Einstein-like figure – an old man wearing a white lab coat, crazy hair and thick glasses – maybe it’s time to change your perceptions.

by Louise Soares, photos by Belén Jiménez-Mena

Women now account for 30% of the world’s researchers in science, according to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS). In Denmark, they represent 59% of all bachelor’s students, 50% of all doctoral students and 35% of all researchers in the field of science. Even though the gender imbalance persists, these numbers show that the female presence in science and the consequent challenges women face in the field can no longer be ignored.

To raise awareness about the issue, the United Nations marked February 11th as the International Day for Girls and Women in Science. To mark the occasion, Aarhus University hosted a Women in Science day of its own. A group of female scholars from the fields of science, technology, engineering and medicine gathered in a panel to discuss the challenges faced by women who pursue a career as a scientist.

Giving them a voice
Ecologist Ashley Pearcy, a PhD Biology student, launched the initiative for the Women in Science day at Aarhus University. She had previously worked as a curator for TedX Aarhus and realised that they did not receive sufficient nominations for women participants in order to secure a representative number of female speakers. Pearcy therefore decided to organise the Women in Science day to create a platform for female scientists to showcase their research and share their experience in the field.

The whole panel of the day (photo by Belén Jiménez-Mena)

The panel for the day (photo: Belén Jiménez-Mena)

“As female scientists, we need to support each other. It is also important to give exposure to women in science. A recent study just found out that around the age of five or six years, girls start associating intelligence and brilliance to men. It’s really good to give them someone else to imagine; someone that looks like them. This is the whole focus of the event. Not just the platform, but for people to know that there are women doing high end research in science,” says Pearcy.

Double the effort
One of the topics discussed in the panel are the barriers that female scientists still face in the academic world. Pearcy notes that there is direct discrimination against women working in scientific research – even in Denmark, which prides itself on being an equal opportunities nation.

“I don’t know a single woman who hasn’t had some level of discrimination. The issue is that people are not used to seeing women working in science. This needs to become a talking point. The minute this becomes something that’s more obvious, more general, it becomes more acceptable. It’s a process,” explains Pearcy.

For Paula Fernandez Guerra, a PhD Medicine student and guest researcher at Aarhus University, the more you go up the academic ladder, the more difficult it is to find other women performing similar functions. Those who made it had to double their efforts to be acknowledged by their male peers.

“We need to compete more. A woman in science has to be 2.5 times better than a man to get a job. Maternity is also an issue. It’s also in the media. Today, everyone talks about women in science. In a week, no one remembers,” says Fernandez.

Role Models
Another topic in discussion at the Women in Science day was how to make girls and young women more interested in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and medicine. Fernandez notes that there are many subconscious biases in society that keep girls from seeing themselves as future scientists and researchers.

Physician Kari Tandrup

Physician Kari Tandrup spoke on the day (photo: Belén Jiménez-Mena)

“It starts when you are a little girl. All the people you see working in a lab or doing science are men. That starts being something in the back of your head, where you think, ‘Maybe this is not for me’. It wasn’t my case. I don’t know why; maybe I had different role models in my life. Also, I really wanted to do this, I really wanted to understand how things happen, how things work,” says Paula.

For physician Kari Tandrup, a partial solution to this imbalanced equation would be the introduction of more women scientists as role models for the younger generation.

“As soon as we have more women in high level research, we will realise this is a natural way. To go for a career in science is a long-term decision. That decision is much easier to take if you see a woman like yourself taking the same route,” concludes Tandrup.

For more information about the role of women in science on a worldwide scale, check out the UNESCO Institute of Statistics’ interactive tool here.

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