Remove glass ceiling for women in science

Feb 11 marked the inaugural International Day of Women and Girls in Science. This initiative by the United Nations underscores the importance of women in science, and aims to boost the profile and ranks of women scientists in the world.

Research into why women drop out of science, technology, engineering and maths fields despite high aptitude at an early age points to stereotypical treatment and unconscious bias that prevent them from fulfilling their potential.

According to the most recent Unesco Science Report, women make up only 28 per cent of researchers across the world, with increasingly lower representation at higher levels of decision-making.

In the United States, although the percentage of doctorates awarded to women in the life sciences increased from 15 per cent to 52 per cent between 1969 and 2009, only about a third of assistant professors and less than a fifth of full professors were women.

Yale University published a study which showed that even when presented with identical resumes, professors strongly favoured men in their hiring decisions.

Even when a woman was hired, the salary offered was lower than a man's.

Surprisingly, female scientists were just as biased as their male counterparts in hiring men.

Dr Claire Pomeroy, president of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, which advances medical research, presented surveys where the majority of women scientists testified that their recommendations were often ignored in favour of their male colleagues' in meetings.

The discouraging put-downs inevitably undermine the confidence and ambition of women scientists, especially when these come from teachers, mentors or members of the scientific elite, who should be inspiring and supporting the next generation of scientists.

One way to encourage more women to go into science is to feature more women scientists in popular culture.

Everyone knows Albert Einstein's ubiquitous visage, but not everyone is familiar with Marie Curie, who remains the only scientist to win Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry.

Last year, Chinese researcher Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work on artemisinin, an anti-malarial drug.

Toymaker Lego is also making an impact on young minds by producing mini figures of women scientists.

We should encourage the participation of women in science by removing organisational barriers and promoting a career in science for women as the equals of men.

Maria Loh Mun Foong (Ms)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'Remove glass ceiling for women in science'. Print Edition | Subscribe