Faced with an unprecedented set of challenges, the world needs science as never before. And science needs women. To mark the 20th anniversary of the ‘For Women in Science’ programme, Alexandra Palt, Chief Corporate Responsibility Officer, Executive Vice President of the L’Oréal Foundation, tells us how the L’Oréal Foundation and UNESCO are continuing the struggle that began 20 years ago to promote women in science.
A programme for change: a look back at 20 years of campaigning
20 years, 102 award winners, 3,022 study grants, 117 countries
Created by the L’Oréal Foundation and UNESCO in 1998, ‘For Women in Science’ is a programme that aims to support, accompany and promote women in science. It gets involved at every stage of a scientist’s career: starting with awareness-raising at high schools, offering grants for promising young researchers, providing coaching at the start of their working lives, and ensuring recognition for leading scientists when their work contributes to major scientific advances (see the L’Oréal Foundation website). “We draw attention to excellence, and we turn a spotlight on the role-models for scientific women,” explains Alexandra Palt.
Over the past 20 years, L’Oréal and UNESCO have supported more than 3,100 researchers, made 102 awards and helped 3,022 promising young researchers with doctoral and post-doctoral study grants in 117 countries. “To celebrate this anniversary, a major communications campaign will be launched at the world’s leading airports, starting in March, to highlight the five prize winners for 2018*: Paris Charles de Gaulle, along with New York, Sao Paulo, London Heathrow, Beijing, and Johannesburg,” says Alexandra Palt. “The aim is two-fold: to give these women the visibility they deserve, and to also raise awareness among the general public about the issue of women in science.”
“You have to keep up the fight”
Even so, when it comes to assessing what has been achieved so far, the Executive Vice President of the L’Oréal Foundation has no illusions: “We are still a long way from achieving gender balance in science. There is an amount of work still to do.” For Alexandra Palt, who has been dealing with male-female equality issues for 25 years, the figures on women’s representation in scientific research are still too low. “Only 11% of senior academic positions in the European Union are held by women and only 3% of the scientific Nobel Prizes have been awarded to women. We must keep up the fight.”
A challenge for the quality of research
That fight is not just about equality, it’s also about the very future of science itself. “The quality of research depends upon the proportion of women scientists involved,” she insists. Indeed, studies have proved that the absence of women in research teams has an impact on their productivity while, conversely, diverse teams produce more innovations. And a lack of diversity can even be dangerous. Alexandra Palt highlights the issue of representation in the treatment of diseases, which can become biased if there is no female perspective. Equally, sexist discrimination could potentially become ingrained in artificial intelligence, which is mainly being developed by men. “Studies show that photo libraries associate women with domestic tasks – and men with sport, and that picture recognition software not only reflects these stereotypes, but also magnifies them. That’s why it is vital that the new technologies shaping our world are designed by both men and women.”
Getting men involved in changing the culture of an organisation
Given this state of affairs, ‘For Women in Science’ is now seeking to change the structures and operating models of scientific institutions. To do that, means talking to the people who currently run these institutions: men. “We want men who hold senior positions in science to become pro-actively involved in the fight against the glass ceiling and discrimination, and to support a greater female presence in science.”
Setting an example for men to follow
At a practical level, this desire for change has led to a new initiative, entitled ‘Men for women in science’ and launched during the 20th L’Oréal-UNESCO ‘For Women in Science’ awards ceremony. Twenty-five of the world’s leading male scientists (see the list on the Foundation’s site) have already signed a charter of commitments about access to research funding for women, recruitment opportunities, and greater balance in publications and copyrights, while issues like institutional culture are also in the mix. Alexandra Palt also sees the potential for arranging meetings to share best practices and to launch further initiatives on an international scale.
“It’s a deliberate move to try and make men in science aware of these problems. The aim is to encourage, collaborate, create the desire to be involved, and to get others to follow their example.” When asked why men hadn’t been involved before, her answer is: “For a long time, it was thought that a male-female balance would occur naturally, that it was just the way the world was going. But if we have learnt one thing, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted!” Another meeting is scheduled in two years’ time to measure the impact of the ‘Men for women in science’ initiative and to look at the overall state of women in science.
The scientific Odyssey: a long road to travel
Mentalities don’t change from one day to the next. In the early stages of the programme back in 1998, Alexandra Palt remembers how women were almost completely absent from prominent positions in public life. While the situation has changed for the good in the worlds of politics and business, the scientific community is still reluctant to change. And that translates into systematic discrimination.
“Take maternity leave, for example: women are penalised because the scientific community is very competitive – there is little funding available, and you have keep publishing. If you don’t get being published for six months, you’re very soon left on the sidelines!” The very nature of the system works to exclude women. Faced with that, the response is clear: get men and involved, so that men and women together can become a force for change together.
Summing up, Alexandra Palt says: “In a world where artificial intelligence will dominate our life, can we really let ourselves ignore the point of view of half the population of the planet? Every woman, and not just the scientists, should demand and occupy their rightful place in society.”
* The scientific contributions of the 5 award winners in 2018
- Professor Heather Zar. Left South Africa during the apartheid regime, and returned with the election of Nelson Mandela as president. She has established an advanced research programme on pneumonia, tuberculosis and asthma, saving the lives of many children.
- Professor Meemann Chang. Led pioneering work in China on fossil records, leading to insights on how aquatic vertebrates adapted to life on land.
- Professor Dame Caroline Dean. This British molecular biologist studies the way that plants adapt to climate change, leading to new techniques to improve crops.
- Professor Amy T. Austin. Established in Argentina, she has deepened our understanding of the terrestrial ecology systems in natural landscapes and areas that have been modified by mankind.
- Professor Janet Rossant. This Canadian biologist studies how tissues and organs are formed in the developing embryo.