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Here's how to build bridges and bring more women into the science world

 Catherine Muraga (right), the Microsoft Africa Development Centre Managing Director during a mentorship session with female technology and engineering students from different universities across Kenya at Microsoft offices on Feb 10, 2023. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Perhaps it doesn’t matter if women study science. After all, men control most of the world’s resources, have most of the decision-making power, and the shape of the world seems to be formed by men - but look at the world we have.

We need to reflect on that daily, especially today which is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Despite many scientific and technological advances, rising global inequality still denies about 811 million people a simple meal every day.

About 400 million people are denied essential healthcare and our drive for economic growth is now damaging planetary health through climate change.

What have we lost by not insisting on a gender lens in science? I am starting there because the counter-argument is that science is gender-neutral so theoretically, a scientist is neither male nor female.

But that’s not true. It’s a false objectivity because the reality is that we bring ourselves into every human endeavour, and science is no different. How men or women design their research questions and methodology can also skew the type of answers.

Is there gender bias in science?

Science is not an objective enterprise, it is situated within a political, economic, and cultural context that is gender biased. The statistics on women in STEM tell us that story, as we would like to think because its effects and impacts are skewed and biased towards men.

In sub-Saharan Africa, between a mere 18 to 31 per cent of science researchers are women, compared to 49 per cent in Southeast Europe and the Caribbean; 44 per cent in Central Asia and Latin America; and 37 per cent in the Arab States.

Are scientists neutral observers?

An example of how skewed research biases results is that research into pain relief historically ignored gender differences and therefore ignored the needs of women in pain. It has been shown that women perceive more pain than men and this has been demonstrated for clinical pain and experimental pain in humans and animals.

These gender differences in pain and its relief arise from an interaction of genetic, anatomical, physiological, neuronal, hormonal, psychological, and social factors which modulate pain differently in the sexes.  

Women scientists have fought for years to create pain medication based on the needs of female receptors but rarely get enough funding.

But what if we were to imagine a world where women get the resources for the questions they are asking?

And this is interesting to me, as a mother of four, who has marveled at how many women still die in childbirth even today — even in developed countries, such as the US.

The overwhelming majority of maternal deaths occur in developing countries. About two-thirds of all maternal deaths take place in sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria and India alone account for one-third of global deaths.

The maternal mortality ratio in the world’s least developed countries stands at 436 deaths for every 100,000 live births, which is in stark contrast to the corresponding number – just 12 – in wealthy countries.

These are scientific questions that perhaps men are not particularly interested in, but maybe women would be universally interested.

If we had more women and girls in science with enough resources and expertise, we might find solutions that are unexpected and perhaps more generally equitable.

We would see effects across the board including in dealing with the hunger crises which devastate the global south.

Can women scientists help end hunger?

In developing countries, eighty percent of agricultural productivity is generally carried out by women. We cultivate the land, provide food, feed children, take care of them when they’re sick and much more.

If women at every level had enough scientific knowledge to just live their lives, grow crops, think about how to raise productivity and increase yield, and think about improving nutrition, even at the household level, it contributes significantly to meeting global development goals such as reducing poverty (SDG1), ending hunger (SDG 2) and improving global health (SDG X).  

Investing in science education for women yields results. I am an example. My career has been built on compensating for potential gender barriers in education.

My mother was a teacher and she sent me to a girls’ school that prioritised science, since studies show that when girls study science with other girls it reduces negative effects of gender stereotypes, which often define clever girls as nerds and peer pressure steers them away from uncool subjects in science.

The stereotype of a woman in science is that she should be dull, not too pretty, boring, generic etc, all determined by the male gaze. But even though it doesn’t affect me, gender stereotypes impact girls when they’re younger which parents and educators need to understand and address by offering protection and encouragement.

And that encouragement needs to extend across the entire career of a woman scientist, for me, even after my Ph.D., marriage, then four children, made it seemingly impossible to continue in a career in science.

My help came from the Daphne Jackson Trust Fellowship for women returning into science after a career break, and the mentorship of Prof Jenny Cory, a world-class scientist who was at the University of Oxford at the time, and allowed me to join her world-class team of molecular virologists while agreeing to my need for flexible working hours, support for childcare and just general kindness and mentorship, which resulted to be the most productive season of my life.

So, the key to getting more girls and women into science is encouragement, mentorship, and of course financial opportunity. In the end, money opens doors.

If you agree with me, put your money where your mouth is and support girls in some aspect of their careers to get to the next level.

The writer is Executive Director, Alliance for Science

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