This year was special as far as the Nobel Prize Announcements were concerned – many remarkable discoveries found acknowledgement and were considerably relevant particularly in the trying period that we’re going through. But it was unique because women won ‘big’ this year! There were three winners for science– two for Chemistry and one for Physics. Strangely, we’re calling this a big win for women in science despite the number being just three. That’s how ground-breaking it is in this inch-by-inch progress that we’re making in a societal matrix that keeps throwing hurdles at you on the basis of sex.
In the celebratory mood that’s been awaken courtesy of the win, there’s also renewed attention now on what the ambience for women is, especially in laboratories or conferences where they elaborate on the work they’ve done. The situations are varied, but there’s a common strain of predicaments – something that enables the men in your field to surpass you and grab the promotion and other benefits, even acceptance for ideas proposed. Casual sexist nudges by colleagues too are not uncommon. For women, a career in just about any field undoubtedly requires a tug with the pride and prejudice of patriarchal big-foots.
In Western Europe, there are only about 30% of researchers who are women and fewer than one-third of women opt for math or engineering after school. There are surprising exceptions in the numbers though – in Myanmar, above 80% of researchers are women. Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Thailand have more female researchers than their male counterparts. Clearly, the biases are a little less prominent in some regions than the others.
Quite too often, people assume that the reason for lower numbers of women in STEM is the lack of interest cultivated in them via the educational system. However, in this very narrowing down of our focus and eventual evaluation that it is indeed a dispassionate engagement with science that is to be blamed, shows how wrongly aligned the world of science is. It is prejudiced against inviting women as partakers of knowledge and pivotal advancements. It is prejudiced against the female brain that resolves to think, innovate, and act.
These biases get projected through all available mediums and solidify in essence in people’s conscience – whenever somebody considers the prospects of entering STEM, these underlying images of ‘not-being-a-suitable-field’ pounce on and overshadow all other constructive thought. A study titled ‘Gender Bias Without Borders’ deconstructed popular films for how these portrayed women – it showed that only 1 out of 7 STEM roles on screen went to women. Splitting these further, we can also see that of the Life and Physical Sciences roles, only 12% went to women.
Contrary to what a writer like Paulo Coelho wrote, it seems like the entire universe conspires to keep you away from what you truly want if it learns you’re a woman. The images, the conversations, and even the most trivial instances are all determined to dissuade women from getting what they desire as professionals or even as individuals in their own personal spheres.
Even when women like Jennifer Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier or Andrea M. Ghez, make it up the ladder and position themselves as key voices in the field of science – eventually even getting a recognition as immense as the Nobel Prize – they experience bottle-necks at certain points as they further push against the centuries-old status quo in their careers. Doudna, in an interview with KQED back in 2016, said, “I do have to tell you, as I've gone on in my career, particularly the last 10 years or so, I've gotten to a point where I do now see signs of the glass ceiling. I don't think it's always intentional bias, but ... I do experience bias against women in some settings.” To this, she added, “I think that what we're seeing is that it's very difficult for women to break into the top echelons of leadership in science. I'm not talking so much here about university leadership, but more leadership in the highest levels of public policy and the government, as well as in company board rooms.”
A limit gets imposed over how much you can achieve as a woman – permits beyond this threshold are never rolled out. Your very gender gets played out as an impediment – if you’re trying to balance the work-home equation, then there’s another trouble waiting in store to deem this a weakness. This glass ceiling, as Doudna called it, is drenched to its core with unfounded patriarchal prejudice. Perhaps, it’s a sign of this that hers and Charpentier’s win is being critiqued for not including all the hands in the CRISPR research – opinions are being raised stating how unfair it was to not have Virginijus Šikšnys share the prize with them. Though it may be well-intended, these critiques nevertheless reek of an instinct of people to say ‘No, you didn’t do it first.’
Understanding what moulds a woman’s career-path and starting the analysis right at the primary level of education, would be the perfect turn to take now. Flexibility in STEM, like other workplaces, should be realized. Structural reforms are necessary to institute an egalitarian model that treats women as equals to their male counterparts. But, when these are formulated in theory before implementation, it’d be best to not include the patronizing acts of restricting women in their niches – be it science, business, or any other professional pursuit. Crucial to making all this happen is the first step of admitting that there is something wrong with the institution itself – admission, followed by corrections, can go a long way in making the dais level for all.