About two centuries ago, women did not have the right to inherit property, gain financial freedom, or vote for their countries. The era, although riddled with darkness, gave us brilliant writers like Jane Austen who published her literary work anonymously and gained fame much after her demise.
The underrepresentation of women is not limited to literature. Prominent writer of the modernistic era, Virginia Woolf famously said, ‘For most of history, Anonymous was a woman’. There is a gross misrepresentation of women in the field of science, technology, engineering, and medicine.
When we talk about the DNA molecule, we are quick to give all credit to Watson and Crick. We conveniently forget to mention the brilliant scientist Rosalind Franklin who was a co-discoverer.
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There are many myths still surrounding women working in science, from ‘you won’t be able to have a family alongside’ to ‘women don’t enjoy STEM studies’. Somewhere along the way, these myths may be discouraging brilliant young women from pursuing the sciences and contributing to the field.
Here is how we can empower more women to pursue a career in STEM:
Using Inclusive Language
Language plays a huge part in our world. It can be a source of empowerment or discrimination. A major plot point of the popular dystopian novel 1984 was how eradicating words and limiting vocabulary can limit the thought processes and innovation in individuals. The generic term ‘he’ when denoted to all roles can by default lead to the assumption that those capable of filling those roles or duties are males.
Instead of mankind, one can say humankind, or in competitive scenarios instead of saying may the best man succeed; one can say may the best person win.
Women and men face different challenges during their academic careers. One of the biggest concerns raised to women wanting to pursue a career in science is how they will not be able to have a family if they pursue a career as demanding as science. Women can bring a lot to the table and if they feel discouraged by the notion that they have to choose between family and a career, it is a loss for the field.
Research centers and universities need to have inclusive policies in store that make it easy for a woman in the field to navigate the challenges. The policies should include paid maternal and paternal leaves, access to the on-campus day-care center, etc.
Actively Busting Myths
The French polymath Gustave Le Bon compared the female brain to that of the primitive gorillas. He further went on to comment that women have such limited intellectual faculties that even debating it is a waste of time. This is just one example of the insults hurled at the idea of women being able to contribute to society in an intellectual capacity.
Many others have taken the form of long-running myths often repeated as tasteless misogynistic jokes. It is important to encourage women in science and denounce these myths.
Perhaps the best way to encourage women in science is to introduce them to female scientists who against odds were able to achieve greatness in their respective fields. There is Marie Curie who won the Nobel Prize for her pioneering research in the field of radioactivity. Rita Levi- Montalcini got the Nobel Prize for discovering a nerve growth factor, and Gertrude Elion won the Nobel Prize for developing the treatment for Leukaemia. Other notable scientists include Jennifer Doudna, Katherine Freese, Rosalind Franklin, Sau Lan Wu, and many others.
In a Nutshell
There are much fewer women in science than men. Statistics reveal only 20% of doctorates in science in 2014 were awarded to women. This gap is less due to intellectual capacities and more because of social narrative and conditioning. Women are conditioned to believe the stereotypes associated with a STEM career. Implementing these tips is the first step to empowering the new generation of female scientists.