Why the scientific community cannot leave women and girls behind

Women have been behind some of science’s greatest discoveries, from Rosalind Franklin’s research on DNA structure to Margaret Hamilton’s writing of the code that put humans on the moon, says One Young World Ambassador Enass Abo-Hamed.

But the former University of Cambridge researcher argues that the potential achievements of women in science are being lost by the failure to encourage female students to pursue their careers beyond the classroom.

Abo-Hamed, 30, who is originally from Palestine and is a pioneering entrepreneur in the use of hydrogen within the clean technology sector, said: “To increase women’s fingerprint in science and technology, we should dedicate paramount attention to keeping females engaged in science-related fields at all ages, from infancy until well after grad school.”

Speaking ahead of The International Day of Women and Girls in Science, she called on the few women who have reached influential positions in science to do more to encourage female students to progress in their careers. “I believe that women who make it to a 'door opener’ position have more responsibility to get out there and make other females aware of the difference a scientist can make in the world,” she said. “History had shown us what results and impact can be achieved when women get involved in science and walk down the technology route.”

Abo-Hamed is the founder and CEO of H2GO Power, a company that provides safe methods of hydrogen production and storage to generate power on the move. She won Best Energy Startup award in the world at the 2016 HT Summit. “The opportunities that I was presented with as a researcher made me feel that I  can do more if I transferred my research into technology solutions that solve pressing demands for energy in underprivileged societies.”

Her comments were supported by Jordan-based One Young World Ambassador Ayah Alfawaris, who said there was “a clear gap between education and work” in her country. “I can confidently say that education is a priority for almost every family in Jordan and students get fair opportunities regardless of their gender. But sadly, very few of the women who graduate from science fields end up working.”

Alfawaris, 28, blamed the shortfall on a combination of issues, including lack of childcare support, poor transportation infrastructure and gender stereotyping. “Lack of legislation about providing nurseries or proper paid leave forces a lot of women to stay home,” she said.

Alfawaris, who is a Renewable Energy Professional studying for an MSc in Sustainability and Business at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, was chosen as ‘2014 Young Energy Professional of The Year’ by the Association of Energy Engineers in Washington D.C.

She said that women faced particular problems when trying to pursue careers in the STEM sector. “When I first applied for my job in the solar energy sector, the manager tried as much as he could to convince me to stick to a design job because there’s this misconception that women will be more comfortable working in an office, rather than in the field,” she says. “I used to go out to do field inspections to check out rooftops and take measurements. Every time people who worked at those facilities would be amazed that I was not afraid of climbing broken ladders.”

She praised NGOs and initiatives such as TechWomen for empowering women in science but said employers needed to offer more opportunities. “Building the capacity with education and training without revolutionizing the marketplace will not get us anywhere near equality.”

Just last week, Uruguayan entrepreneur and inventor Victoria Alonsoperez came across a book detailing notable figures in science. She noticed that only one woman was listed in the entire book, Marie Curie, who was featured alongside her husband; a testament to how long a journey it has been for women to receive appropriate recognition for their work. While there is more to be done in terms of STEM education, Victoria believes that "if you put it into perspective, we are at a great time in history to achieve this." 

According to research from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, published in 2014, only 30 per cent of the world’s science researchers are women. The findings revealed large discrepancies between individual counties, with women making up 63 per cent of researchers in Bolivia but only 8 per cent in Ethiopia.

The report showed a significant pattern of female science graduates finding it difficult to pursue their careers to research. In Sweden, for example, women contributed 60 per cent of science bachelor degrees but only 36 per cent of researchers. This pattern was repeated “across every region”, the research said, “highlighting the conflict that many women face as they try to reconcile career ambitions with family-caring responsibilities”.

The OECD report Health at a Glance, published in 2015, found that significant steps were being taken in several countries towards improving opportunities for female doctors, most notably in Finland (where women make up 57 per cent of doctors), Czech Republic (55 per cent), and Spain and Netherlands (which both have gender parity). In other countries, such as Japan (20 per cent), female doctors remain very much in the minority.

Concerns around representation of women in science research were highlighted by a row in 2015 after the Nobel science laureate Tim Hunt told a conference in South Korea that he favoured single-sex laboratories. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” he said. “Three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry.” Mr Hunt resigned his honorary professorship amid the controversy provoked by his comments, although he claimed to have been the victim of an over-reaction.

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