It’s 2018, and still some people are surprised that not only do women scientists "exist," but also that they are good at what they do! We all know that many top-level scientists are women, but statistics tell us that we’re still far away from gender equality in science.
Excellent female scientists have always existed, but they have often worked in the shadows: think of Rosalind Franklin, who with her experiments gave proof of the structure of DNA, but was not even mentioned in the attribution of the Nobel Prize given to Wilkins, Watson and Crick.
Rosalind Franklin. Photo by MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology - From the personal collection of Jenifer Glynn, CC BY-SA 4.0
History brings us many other examples of this injustice… so many in fact that "Nobel Prizes Denied to Women Scientists" is a topic to which whole exhibits and publications are devoted. It remains true that "getting out of the shadows" is a fundamental step on the path towards a true integration of the gender dimension in science.
"Women engaged in science deserve to be 'visible' thanks to their research." – Federica Migliardo
There are several important initiatives that allow this small but important achievement. Just to mention two very prestigious examples:
UNESCO (an EQUALS partner) and the L'Oréal Foundation united forces in 1998 to promote and support women in research by creating the International Program for Women in Science. Juries of internationally renowned experts select honorees, and the program recognizes both established scientists (for their career achievements) and young researchers (encouraging them to follow their scientific vocation).
The European Molecular Biology Organization has created a database of female scientists that aims to "identify appropriately qualified women scientists."
These programs provide an exceptional showcase for scientists, who are able to demonstrate the value of their work both inside and outside the scientific and academic community. As a result, public interest builds not only in the research, but also in the lives of women scientists. A kind of sympathy and empathy is created for these women who "struggle" to do science.
Initiatives like these become real awareness-raising actions and push toward greater corporate accountability to science and scientists. In fact, they strongly contribute to the necessary process of bringing science closer to society, a process that certainly requires a great effort by scientists – for example in communicating more frequently and more simply the results of their research – but also a more interested and less passive attitude by society towards scientists.
The other important sphere that is involved in this process of visibility is the political one: newly created female networks give voice to women of science in political debates, increasing their ability to influence the scientific agenda and the process of achieving gender equality in society.
It should be emphasized that the progress made in addressing and resolving gender issues in science reverberates in all social spheres where prejudices and discrimination still persist, since only through a structural change of the traditional mentality, that usually attributes a gender to jobs and above all the care of family and home to women, can we achieve true equality between men and women.
Federica Migliardo is an associate professor in the Department of Chemical, Biological, Pharmaceutical and Environmental Sciences at the University of Messina