“The world needs science. Science needs women,” reads the L’Oreal-UNESCO women in science strapline. We agree.
Last week, Julia Etulain was sitting in a lobby of a hotel in Paris, far from her hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina. She explained her research energetically, occasionally apologising for near-perfect, short-sentence, staccato English.
Etulain spends around nine hours a day working in the lab as a researcher on tissue regeneration using platelet-rich plasma (PRP). Platelets, whilst traditionally understood to work as the blood’s clotting agent, also have a role in promoting tissue regeneration. By taking a blood sample from a patient, and culturing it from there, doctors could help patients repair their tissue with greater efficacy than is currently possible, and at a fraction of the price. In a nutshell, she says, the idea “is to use your own blood to repair your tissue.”
She’s working towards introducing this technology into public hospitals in Argentina. Understandably, a lot needs to be worked out before any technology makes it into hospitals. She meets with members of government and medical doctors on a regular basis. “It’s really strange,” she says. “I started in the lab just working with pipettes. This is super ambitious.”
She’s busy. “I am really tired. This is a difficult moment in my career. You need to do everything – your own ideas, your own papers, your own experiments.”
Etulain says she decided to be a scientist when she was young. She faced an early barrier, though. “I didn’t have an image of a woman in science. When you’re young and you want to do something, you look at pictures. And in pictures of scientists they’re all men, they’re all wearing glasses, they’re not smiling. I am not that person.”
Science has a problem. Women working in this area don’t get the credit they deserve. They get paid less. They face discrimination. They face funding disparities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the above, they leave.
Part of this, Michelle Simmons, who runs the Centre for Quantum Computation & Communication at the University of New South Wales, Australia, told me, is simply because not enough people are highlighting where women scientists go, and what they do when they get there. The first time she played her father at chess, he lost. “He was furious,” she says. “I remember thinking at the time ‘he doesn’t expect me to be able to do this.’” After that, she decided to keep surprising people.
Highlighting women in science is exactly the mission of L’Oreal-UNESCO’s women in science initiative. Each of the five winners (Simmons is one) received 100,000 Euros in prize money at a ceremony last Thursday, 23rd March 2017, some of which will go back into initiatives to promote women in science.
Etulain was also honoured. She is one of 15 promising young scientists who have been awarded fellowships to support their research.
Failing to stop women leaving science is a bad economic move. Half of the intelligence in the world belongs to women, and some of that brainpower should be spent on science. More simply, failing to fight inequality anywhere is simply wrong.
But some of the issues that women face are difficult to combat, for one reason or another. Many of us fall victim to – or are even purveyors of – the kind of unconscious bias that is pervasive in society. So what can we do about it?
The first step, writes Viviane Callier, is to acknowledge our biases. There is no way to challenge something – in our own thinking or in others’ – that we are not aware of. After that, start combatting examples of ‘everyday sexism.’ Boycott events that have an obvious lack of gender balance, and let them know why. Challenge funding, staffing, and authorship decisions if you think they were influenced by gender. Encourage others to do the same, in the everyday world and on social media.
The L’Oreal Foundation and UNESCO have published a manifesto, which offers anyone the chance to support gender equality in science. If you’re interested in signing, you can find it here.
Challenging someone’s decision is a hard thing to do. Challenging your seniors’ decisions is even harder. We’ve spent a lot of time covering the cut-throat competition that all scientists face. Maybe, if you challenge a colleague or collaborator, you’ll be overlooked for a future opportunity.
This means two things. First, for a real movement towards gender balance to come about in science, scientists need to be brave and articulate in their support. If you find yourself challenging a decision, make sure to be clear as to why you’re asking. Be polite, be respectful, and be firm.
Second, change needs to come from the top down. Senior lab members, department heads, policymakers and other leading figures must make their support of women in science heard. And, more importantly, they should encourage initiatives that help to combat the unique challenges that women in science face.
It would be a struggle to find anyone in a senior position in science who does not agree that we should be doing more to support women in this area. The real challenge is making sure we act, before more intelligence, creativity and spark leaves for greener pastures.
What’s next for Etulain? “I have a lot of work to do,” she says. “And then, I don’t know. That’s the thing I like about science. It’s unpredictable.”
Jack Leeming is the editor of Naturejobs.