Have attitudes towards women in science changed if more of them are succeeding? | Éliane Ubalijoro
In the last four years, one may have noticed a significant increase in the number of women achieving success in the field of science.
Several women have been awarded Nobel prizes in the fields of physiology or medicine, physics, and chemistry. These women have made incredible accomplishments, including Katalin Karikó’s work on mRNA vaccines for Covid-19 and Andrea Ghez’s discovery of a supermassive black hole in the Milky Way galaxy.
In 2020, two women, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, made history by being awarded the Nobel Prize in science without sharing the honor with a man. Their groundbreaking work on Crispr genome editing has greatly advanced the field of genetics and offers promising possibilities for treating various diseases.
What is currently happening? Has there been a shift in perspectives towards women in the field of science?
The public recognition of successful female scientists may inspire young girls in school, but we must not overlook the ongoing obstacles that prevent many women from entering the field. While some manage to overcome societal expectations and pursue a career in science, countless others are discouraged by authority figures, lack self-assurance, or face barriers related to their health and reproductive rights.
There is now an observed day called International Day of Women and Girls in Science which serves as a reminder that there is still progress to be made in addressing the gender gap and providing equal opportunities for those interested in pursuing a career in science. These UN-designated international days serve not only as occasions for celebration, but also as a means to bring attention to important issues.
According to the United Nations, in 2023, women made up only 35% of graduates in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Additionally, only 12% of members in national science academies are women. Women and girls from marginalized groups, such as Indigenous women, those of African descent, women with disabilities, and those living in rural areas or identifying as LGBTQ+, face even more obstacles when trying to enter these fields.
Moreover, there are also financial barriers that prevent individuals from continuing their education or receiving proper medical care, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
Improving the education of women, not limited to science, relies on investing in healthcare. Across the world, over 500 million females do not have access to safe menstrual products, causing them to miss school and work. When half of the population is unable to contribute, they are unable to drive progress and bring about change. This has ripple effects for society as a whole and hinders a gender-inclusive shift towards a net-zero future.
When there is not a fair opportunity for everyone, women and girls must work harder to succeed. Role models can provide essential motivation in these situations.
My personal journey serves as evidence to girls that having ambitious dreams can lead to great success. With the support of my parents, I was able to navigate a path that took me from growing up in Rwanda to living on three different continents, earning a doctorate in molecular genetics, and becoming a professor at McGill University in Canada. I also have had a successful career in the private sector, served on various boards internationally, and am now the head of a prominent research organization.
In the previous year, I was appointed as the CEO of the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry, making me the first African woman to lead a CGIAR research center. In April of this year, Yvonne Pinto will also become the leader of the International Rice Research Institute, marking the first time in over 50 years that two African women will hold leadership positions in the CGIAR global research partnership.
Ismahane Elouafi and Lindiwe Majele Sibanda are now in charge of the board and senior management, making us a part of a growing group of African women who are leading in the areas of food systems, climate, and biodiversity conservation. With our presence at the leadership table, there are endless possibilities for what we can accomplish together.
In 1947, Marie Maynard Daly became the first African American woman to receive a doctorate in chemistry in the United States. She stated, “My parents never discouraged me based on my gender.”
Similar to Daly, I was lucky to have parents who not only did not discourage me, but also had faith in me and motivated me to succeed. The self-assurance and determination instilled in me by them have been essential in overcoming challenges in my life. The support from mentors, coaches, and advocates has also played a crucial role in my professional growth. It is important for every girl and woman to have a similar supportive atmosphere at home, school, and work.
For all the women and girls who aspire to pursue a profession in science, I encourage you to dream boldly. Have the courage to take risks and be fearless. Let your dreams be so grand that others may question them. Even if you don’t receive a Nobel Prize, following your true passion is what truly matters for a meaningful and satisfying life.
Éliane Ubalijoro is the CEO of CIFOR-ICRAF