Posted on November 15, 2021 at 3:05 PMUpdated November 15, 2021 at 3:09 PM
Women are a very small minority in the basic sciences, where the proportion of women researchers ranges from 20% to 30% for the most advanced countries. To lament is not a matter of morality or justice, but of simple logic.
Having no influence of sex on intellectual abilities, this disparity causes science to be deprived of the talent of almost 50% of humanity, which mechanically lowers its level. While knowledge is our best asset in the face of future challenges, overcoming this inequality is more than ever an obligation. And it’s not out of reach, not even in the short term.
The question that arises is where do women who had the potential to stand out in scientific research go? The loss is likely to be progressive, due to schooling and careers. Undoubtedly, it is largely due to the stereotypes of society that, even in families and the very spirit of girls, makes them drop out of very early studies that seem too masculine.
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Fighting them will definitely take time. This will require dusting off the image of science and, in particular, giving greater visibility to women scientists, starting with those who are currently in office or about to enter laboratories.
Priority must therefore be given to all those who, having embraced scientific studies, pursue a career below their means, or even give up and change course. For these, concrete solutions capable of rapidly changing the situation are within the reach of scientific establishments.
The first, very simple and at the same time crucial, is to implement a code of ethics in universities. Strongly and clearly stating that diversity is one of the cardinal values of the establishment and declaring at the highest level that it is a goal is the cornerstone of any approach.
Transparency will then be the first manifestation, as well as the demonstration, of this will. Staff, places, salaries, resources, publications … To move forward, the institution must begin with the courage to face its shortcomings, and then follow the evolution of these indicators over time.
Correct certain reflexes
Beyond the agreed speeches, the desire for change reflected in the publication of the data allows, in a second phase, to address the issue within the services. Experience shows that women are often marginalized, less listened to in meetings, excluded from conversations, due to the unconscious persistence of stereotypes.
Most of the time, these are involuntary attitudes that are enough to point out, without animosity or revenge, to correct them.
With the support of their management, managers can fight these reflexes by highlighting them, but also giving a boost to the women on their teams, for example by giving them the floor in public. It may seem small, but combating the banality of sexism in everyday life has a considerable impact.
Then we need to support these women who may feel isolated, unaware of the opportunities that may be offered to them, or even of their own possibilities. It is not a question of encouraging them, but of supporting them so that they do not become discouraged or lose the path in which they would stand out.
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This support can take the form of external mentors, able to help, advise and encourage. But also to create an international virtual space by the main women’s scientific organizations that allows members from different backgrounds to help each other, share their experiences, exchange opportunities for visibility …
Highlight your work
Finally, development programs need to be put in place. While women often cultivate experience, there comes a time when, in order to continue to progress, they must also seize leadership. This is true in business as well as in the scientific world where, from a certain level, publications are no longer enough.
Obtaining recognition, advancement, and credit requires interpersonal skills, a reputation, ultimately, understanding and mastering the mechanisms of influence and power. And you learn!
The struggle for diversity
Simple and practical, these solutions have the huge advantage of not calling into question the principle of excellence on which science is based. Scientists are, for the most part, honest, rational, respectful of facts, and humble in the face of talent.
They would be overwhelmingly willing to correct their prejudices if they were revealed to them and would gladly give way to women who would add competition. On the other hand, they would not accept feminization to the detriment of excellence, and the slightest suspicion of favoritism would discredit the whole process.
To feminize science, we must stop pretending that it is a fundamentally masculine world where only exceptional women can succeed. Nor is it useful to make it a matter of morality, to call for a revolution, or to exclude men from reflection.
The struggle must remain one of diversity because it is in diversity where there is wealth, and diversity includes everyone. It is a struggle that is won every day, step by step, not with spells but with concrete solutions.
Martine Liautaud is the founder and president of the Women initiative foundation.