GeoLog

Women in science: Inspiring and honest stories that call for support and change

Women in science: Inspiring and honest stories that call for support and change

Sometimes, a simple story in a book or movie lights a spark and makes a young person curious about science. These young minds grow up dreaming to be mathematicians, scientists, doctors, engineers, technologists, and astronauts. But the road to being a woman or girl in science is rarely an easy one – even today in 2022! Despite the collective awareness of and push to break gender barriers and disparities, women and people beyond the gender binary still have to fight harder to enter, stay and advance in their scientific field.

At EGU we are very fortunate to have a large number of women working throughout our organization in many voluntary roles – including our Union President, Helen Glaves, Union Secretary Giuliana Panieri and many of our Division Presidents and Committee Chairs, not to mention the hundreds of editors (both executive and regular), session organisers, Division officers and other volunteers! To find out more about some of these women, why not check last year’s blog on the Women of EGU in 2021!

As the world observes International Day of Women and Girls in Science today (11 February), although we couldn’t represent all the wonderful women in our organistion, we spoke to a few of our newest EGU volunteers to hear their own stories: of personal breakthroughs, challenges and lessons learned along their science journey. They tell us why it is important to encourage scientific temper in girls at a young age, and the need to support our women-in-science colleagues when it matters.

So without further ado, let’s meet: Barbara Ervens (Chair of the EGU Publications Committee, and Research Scientist at University Clermont, Auvergne), Irka Hajdas (EGU Climate: Past, Present & Future Division President and researcher at the Laboratory of Ion Beam Physics, ETH Zurich), Bettina Schaefli (Editor of EGU journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, and hydrology professor at University of Bern), Ichiko Sugiyama (Editor-in-Chief of the EGU Climate: Past, Present and Future Division blog and PhD candidate at the Weizmann Institute of Science), and Munira Raji (the newest member of the EGU Equality Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Committee, and postdoc-researcher at the University of Hull).

 

(L-R): Barbara Ervens, Irka Hajdas, Bettina Schaefli, Ichiko Sugiyama, Munira Raji

 

What does this day mean to you as a woman in science?

Ichiko: I feel exceptionally privileged to live in a time when we can celebrate women and all people in science. In the last century, the world has come so far, from the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize (Marie Skłodowska-Curie), to our present society where we embrace diversity, equality, and increasingly, equity in many scientific institutions. I am thankful for all the trailblazers before me for paving the path and levelling the playing field for my generation of scientists, so that we do not need to re-experience many of the struggles that they faced. That said, our world is not a perfect place, and we have to continuously work towards creating a welcoming scientific community for women and for all.

Barbara: Well, I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I think it is great to show girls and women opportunities and perspectives in science and to raise awareness of the inequality in our science community. On the other hand, the fact that such a day is needed upsets me.

Efforts to include girls and women in science should not be a reason to celebrate; their equal representation in our science community should rather be the normal state.

Irka: I must confess, I was not aware of this day until last year when I learned of it through EGU’s social media. Even so, I did not realise that the date is coming soon. What I want to say here is that there is not enough information about this day amongst scientific circles. And especially among women scientists. After your question, I pushed myself to find the UN web page and sent out a twitter message. I will also send it to some mailing lists where I have access. That is a plan for the coming years too.

Bettina: From my time as a young PhD student, I have had the strong feeling that I’m often selected for talks to diversify the speakers list. This theme is omnipresent and even more pronounced since I became a full professor: now I am a female scientist, a female engineer and a female professor – who does not dream of having this person in their evaluation body, discussion panel or steering committee? And every time I decline an invitation, I feel bad because it reinforces the cliché that the under-representation of women is above all their own fault – they are not available enough.

There is only one situation where I felt 100% comfortable in my role in a panel: in an expert meeting for a national-scale flood security project. Imagine a huge meeting room in the historical building of ETH Zürich, full of engineers and scientists and me …being the only woman in the room gave me a very powerful signal that I was not there to increase the quota.

So, being a woman in science means to often ask myself whether I am here because I am really good at what I’m doing or because of who I am. But it also makes me feel proud of having succeeded in something that was particularly challenging.

Munira: I see this as an important day to raise awareness of the persistent under-representation of women in science. It is also a great day to highlight the remarkable achievements of women in science, the pivotal role that women play in the advancement of science, and the sustainability of our society if they are empowered through science education and employment opportunities in science – this sends a powerful message to our younger generation of girls. In addition, it is also a day for geoscience organisations and institutions to reflect on and take the next step to increase their efforts to support all women towards true gender equality.

 

Can you tell us about some of the challenges you faced as a woman in science?

Bettina: The biggest challenge right now is to convince my peers, men and women, that we are not there yet. There are still project reviewers who openly write that female field work expeditions to harsh environments are too dangerous – and there are still research panel members who are not shocked reading such a comment.  There are still students who are openly sexist in their lecture evaluations and there are still evaluation bodies that do not think such evaluation sheets should be filtered. There are still colleagues who forget that they are looking for experts to fill their panel and not for women to fill their quota.

Munira: As a woman, I recently realised that simply attending good schools, hard work, and dedication without support, especially for childcare and a work environment that encourages work-life balance, does not get you far in science. But I have realised this is not entirely true for most women, especially for black women in the geosciences. Black and other minority women in science face more gender and racial barriers (‘leaky pipeline’), limiting our scientific advancement. I wanted to be a geoscientist from when I was about 7 or 8 years old, so so I did! But I faced many career barriers after I graduated, which made me feel like I don’t belong in geoscience and wished I never did science.

One of the things that kept me up at night was trying to understand why there were so many STEM programmes advocating to get more girls into science, but I rarely come across any program advocating to recruit and retain women scientists in science.

Another challenge I think we don’t talk much about is how some women sometimes completely put their family lives on hold, waiting for the next interview or the next big job moves. Women are constantly waiting for the ‘right time’ to start having kids or expand their family because we do not want to turn up to an interview heavily pregnant or relocate our family for a new job with a new-born. I think this is deeply unfair to women; the lack of work-life balance in the working environment needs to change. However, we need to identify the barriers first, find focus solutions to these barriers, and provide equal opportunities for both men and women within geosciences.

Barbara: One of the greatest challenges is to be heard in male-dominated communities. We constantly need to keep reminding and proving that women’s views, skills and approaches are valuable assets that enrich science communities. It must become the general understanding that making active efforts to include women in science is beneficial for everyone, and not just a requirement to fulfil a quota.

Irka: The scientific landscape has changed a lot in the last 30 years. Back then, starting a PhD did not require a huge application or an interview. I think if I had to apply now, and male colleagues applied for the position too, I would never get it. Luckily for me, no male students were interested in ‘playing in mud’. So I took on this adventure and later took care of the 14C preparation lab. In this way, I was lucky to find a niche where I could build my research based on collaboration. However, getting my own funding was impossible; there were no instruments to support early career scientists, especially female ECS [Early Career Scientists]. At least this has changed now.

Ichiko: Some challenges that I have encountered are more specific to being a Japanese woman in science. As an international student pursuing a career in science, one of the challenges I faced was to adapt to a new country with all its cultural and social norms. While I have been fortunate to have had opportunities to study in Japan, Canada, the U.S., and Israel, I have often struggled to adapt to new environments.

Being able to understand social norms, cultural boundaries, and cultural references affects how you communicate with, and are accepted by your colleagues, and this can impact how you are perceived, and whether you are encouraged to continue in science.

After many years of experience, I have learned that home is where you want it to be, and I am lucky to have a loving partner, a cat, parents, friends, and scientific colleagues that have been helping me deal with all the frustrations that come with being a woman in science. Additionally, establishing a healthy work-life balance in today’s competitive scientific environment becomes increasingly difficult. Moreover, the long training period in science is certainly prolonging me from starting my own family. Not having a stable job or permanent address makes it difficult to plan for the future, especially as a foreigner with no nearby family support.

 

How can we support other women and young girls who aspire to join the sciences? Was there any online support or in-person communities that helped you, which you could share with others?

Munira: I believe the best way to inspire young girls to join the sciences is to retain and support women that have already studied science. Then equip and increase visibility for these women scientists to go out and inspire more girls to join science. When young girls see other women scientists doing great things and becoming leaders in their field, it inspires them to become scientists. It is human nature to envision a future we desire when we see someone who looks like us and is from a similar background as role models.

The future of girls in science depends on those women already in science; this is why representation and visibility matter. Limited representation and visibility of women scientists from different racial backgrounds translates into fewer female role models for younger girls and limited mentoring opportunities.

I almost left the geosciences until I was matched up with a great mentor Dr Stephanie Zihms through the TigerInSTEM mentoring program. My mentor’s selfless support and guidance helped me realise that I was enough and doing all the right things, which transformed my perspective from anger and frustration into actionable strategies. I recommend mentoring groups like TigerInSTEMM and the Equator Mentoring Scheme to anyone looking for online support to navigate studies and career decisions. I also recommend using Twitter to build support networks with a community of people on a similar journey who may have overcome some of the challenges you have. When I was struggling to kick-start my career, being vulnerable online and asking for help from the geoscience community on Twitter turned out to be a life-changing decision for me!

Bettina: The one and only reason I am where I am today is my mother. She was born in the fifties and had to fight for her right to education, to vote and to even open a bank account in Switzerland. I learnt from her that women can do everything but that they have to fight for it, and everything is more difficult for them. One thing that supported me in this endeavour was a mentoring and training programme for excellent women in science (funded by the EU) during my postdoc period. Such programmes should certainly be encouraged because they offer a safe space to share experiences. This in my view is the most important thing: offer opportunities to women to learn with and from other women.

But there is an even more important role for ALL of us: talk about science, mathematics, chemistry, and physics with all the young girls you know (not just your own!). They are never too young: explain why the milk is white or why you can fill some glasses even above their upper limit; explain why the milk gets layered in your cappuccino and start an experiment to understand what influences the layering. Once you start this, you will be surprised to discover how many kids and especially girls have very little exposure to science and scientific thinking.

Barbara: The most efficient strategy to encourage girls and women to join the sciences is to provide good role models and develop supportive work environments. There are great initiatives and networks out there to get informed and involved, such as the Earth System Women Network or the If/Then collection. Fortunately, there is also an increasing number of resources becoming available at local museums and libraries. They are accessible to every girl that would like to get inspired.

Ichiko: Growing up in Japan in the ’90s, I did not have any female role models in science, which made it difficult to see myself pursuing a career in this discipline. I hope that the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives will continue to provide platforms for all genders and races, and inspire more young people to see themselves as future scientists. A key factor which helped me stay in science is the opportunity and support my professors gave me despite my less than stellar academic record (during my undergraduate degree).

Aptitude for science cannot always be measured through tests you take as a child or as a post-secondary student.

If it was not for the handful of professors who were willing to give me a shot, to provide me with academic training, and to show me that being a scientist is so much more than acing a test, I would have not made it this far in science.

We are fortunate to have the technological means to create open-access platforms to share scientific resources across the world, but still face challenges to direct people to these resources. To contribute to this endeavor, I have been working as an outreach coordinator in the EGU’s Climate: Past, Present and Future (CL) Division to communicate climate-related research to the public. I also co-founded an organization, Rock Archive, which communicates the current state of knowledge on Earth history to the public using simple illustrations and language. Creating such educational resources that are accessible and easy to understand is vital to bring excitement to young people and motivate interest in the Earth Sciences.

Irka: First of all, we need to tell girls how great science is and why being a scientist is for everybody. We need to invite schools to come and visit research facilities so that young people can see science in action. This is the first step. Next is to encourage students to stay in science. Then we need to encourage and help female ECS to stay in science.

The biggest challenge is to keep women in science for 30+ years. We can do that by helping them find jobs and inviting them to join relevant projects.

I think that I am here now because I mixed my love for science with flexibility and persistence. The tool that I recommend is networking. Without doubt, EGU’s General Assembly is a melting pot of ideas and potential collaborations.

 

We thank our women scientists for their inspiring stories, and their suggestions of how to support other women and girls in science. If you have advice or resources that will be useful for women, girls and people beyond the gender binary who work in science, please share them in the comments.

 

Happy International Day for Women and Girls in Science!

Interviews by Gillian D’Souza, Media and Communications Officer.

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Gillian D’Souza is Media and Communications Officer at the European Geosciences Union. She oversees the Union's blog writing, press interactions and media communication. She has been a science writer on various subjects including health and the environment for over 7 years, and has an M.Sc. in Food Microbiology and Biochemistry from Mumbai, India.


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