Muireann Irish on celebrating diversity in science
Springtime in Paris seems a fitting backdrop for any awards ceremony but particularly so in the case of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program. I recently had the honour of attending the 2017 International Awards along with 14 other early career researchers from around the globe, as part of the L’Oréal-UNESCO International Rising Talents Fellowship.
We were physicists, chemists, engineers, neuroscientists, and biologists, researching protein aggregation in dementia, the formation of celestial bodies, and how to harness soil bacteria to develop new antibiotics. It was truly an uplifting experience and we returned to our home countries feeling motivated, empowered, and part of a unique cohort that hopefully will endure for years. Months later, we are still in regular contact — we share anecdotes, relay our news, or simply ask for advice or encouragement.
On arrival in Paris, we attended a welcome reception in which representatives from L’Oréal and UNESCO outlined their “Women in Science” manifesto and our itinerary for the week. Looking around the room, it was difficult to decipher exactly who the scientists were; each of us surrounded by L’Oréal personnel and media. One by one, we stood up and made ourselves known, at times to the surprise of the audience, and even each other. Later, we ruefully admitted that we had allowed our own unconscious biases to influence our perceptions of “what a scientist looks like”.
Such negative stereotypes are pervasive, despite concerted efforts such as the #ILookLikeAnEngineer Twitter campaign and the DiscovHer program. Our mentoring and coaching sessions throughout the week focused on career development, negotiation skills, and media training, all of which were designed to counter stereotypes regarding women in science, and the notion that a more “feminine” appearance decreases the veracity of women belonging in science.
Women in science programs tend to draw a certain level of cynicism, and the L’Oréal-UNESCO program is not without its critics. People have questioned the motivation behind such schemes, and whether they really work to ensure the long-term security of women within academia. Similarly, others have argued whether a stylised depiction of female scientists is the best way to encourage young girls into a field that is highly competitive and, at times, adversarial.
On the other hand, young girls are increasingly exposed to disheartening messages regarding the stark underrepresentation of women in science, and the “leaky pipeline” of academia. In Australia, where I work, less than 25% of female academics in STEM fields are professors, despite initiatives to redress this imbalance. At a roundtable discussion on “Gender and Science”, we had the opportunity to speak with UNESCO representatives on their campaigns to promote the uptake and retention of women in science. Overwhelmingly, the discussion turned to the biases and obstacles that impede the advancement of women. We were left wondering whether the persistent reminder of the lack of diversity in STEM might dissuade, rather than motivate, girls to choose this field of study.
If young girls consistently hear about entrenched biases, insurmountable difficulties, and the uphill struggle to pursue careers in science, earnest efforts to encourage their participation may very well deter the next generation altogether. This was largely the sentiment of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Laureates; five scientists who have made outstanding advances in the physical sciences, and are without question at the forefront of their respective fields. Overwhelmingly, the advice from these stellar researchers was to stay focused and to not get side-tracked by negativity. Instead, we were encouraged to pursue challenges that truly scare us, to instil some “academic frisson” into our working day, and to simply ignore or shake off criticism. Central to the success of these scientists was a determination and passion to “get on with their core research.”
Such advice could potentially draw cries of survivorship bias – you could argue, if you were so inclined, that elite scientists are far removed from the trials of an early career researcher. Our collective unconscious biases were promptly rebuked, though, when we learned that the majority of these scientists were mothers, and had experienced patent forms of discrimination, overt sexism, and setback after setback. The core of their message was to “focus on your research,” — a simple but powerful statement.
I believe the benefits of dedicated women in science programs far outweigh any potential downsides. I was awarded a L’Oréal-UNESCO Australian-New Zealand regional fellowship in 2015, shortly after my return to work following maternity leave. For me the fellowship came at a crucial juncture in my career — my confidence was low, I was adjusting to a new working style post-baby, and the feeling of impostor syndrome that seems to transcend gender, culture, and discipline had firmly taken hold. Aside from the monetary award, which can be used for childcare, conference travel, or direct research costs, the mentoring, coaching, and publicity generated by the L’Oréal team was invaluable.
A highlight of the award was speaking at the UNSW Girls in Science Forum, and witnessing first-hand the importance of providing relatable female role models for younger girls. Overwhelmingly the main question I received was how to balance a career with a family – this concern seemed to top the bill with high school students aged 14 and 15! At that age, such issues were far from my mind.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson we learned at UNESCO was to recognise the privileged position we have attained and, with that, the responsibility we carry to ensure that such benefits are passed on to younger scientists coming through the ranks. If ‘you can only be what you can see,’ then it is our duty to dispel antiquated notions of scientists as old white men and to promote a more inclusive image, not only in terms of gender, but also of culture and sexuality. With the For Women in Science Program embracing its 20th anniversary next year, I look forward to its continued success and hope that there will come a time where it is no longer necessary.
Muireann Irish is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Associate Professor of Psychology, at the Brain and Mind Centre, University of Sydney, Australia. Her research explores how complex cognitive processes — such as remembering the past and imagining the future — are compromised in neurodegenerative disorders.