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Women in science: Building (and drawing) the right role models



Scientists must recognise progress in the advancement of equality, but there is more to be done, Jack Leeming discovers at the 2018 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards.

Amy Austin has spent her life in the sun. She grew up in Florida, studied for her PhD in Hawaii, and did work in California before moving to Argentina to continue her research. Using the sun, she’s revolutionised our understanding of the world’s carbon cycle.

Before her seminal paper, published in Nature in 2006, scientists thought that when a leaf falls to join the ground below, it is bacteria and insects that take the leaf apart. She demonstrated that the sun does most of the hard work. Zoom out to the trillion leaves that fall every autumn, and that insight becomes crucial to understanding how CO2 enters our atmosphere.

“This is critical,” says Austin, professor of ecology at the University of Buenos Aires and a senior editor at the Journal of Ecology and New Phytologist. “Our capacity to respond and establish some kind of balance in the world’s carbon system will require understanding this.

Austin told me she still struggles with stereotypes: “If you ask a child to draw a picture of a scientist, they will typically draw a picture of an older male, with a beard, dressed in a lab coat,” she says.

The awards ceremony took place in the same week as an analysis published in the Journal of Child Developmentbased on “draw-a-scientist studies” reported that in the 1960s and ‘1970s just 0.6% of children drew a woman scientist. By the 2010s, about one in three drawings portrayed a female scientist.

She sees this award as one way to combat that, to “put a name and a face to the women who do good science. Science is the centre of the prize.”

Austin sees her field of ecology as especially vulnerable to this kind of stereotyping. “People who study outside and do science outside are not considered a scientist by the public,” she says. “They’re not in a lab coat. They’re not in a laboratory.”

But outreach can help kills the science stereotype. This week the 20th L’Oreal-UNESCO awards for women in science – which comes with a prize of €100,000 – went to “five brilliant women scientists recognised for outstanding contributions to their field,” said UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay. “They demonstrate that women can play a role in science around the globe.”

Austin was the Latin America winner (the other categories are North America, Africa and Arab States, Europe and Asia Pacific). “Even more than the honour itself,it’s a privilege to have spent the last week with an extraordinary group of women,” she said at the ceremony, adding:  “I hope that the greater visibility of women in science that this award brings can attract more young women to pursue a scientific career and perhaps even to field ecology.”

Like science, change is slow. There is progress. But there is a way to go yet.

The full list of winners can be found at this link.

Jack Leeming is editor of Naturejobs.

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