News / Asia

Women Scientists Close Gender Gap in Indonesia

Women Scientists working in a science research lab in Jakarta
Women Scientists working in a science research lab in Jakarta

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Brian Padden

The United Nations chose the theme of  women and science education for this year's International Women's Day to highlight the gender gap in many parts of the world between the number of men and women scientists.

Yanti, a scientist developing new chemical agents to treat inflammatory diseases like arthritis, says there is no significant gender gap in Indonesia, at least not in her field.

"I find when I enter undergraduate school in the department of chemistry, I found that most students are women. And also at the department of biology at the time," Yanti said.

Yanti, who like many Indonesians uses one name, is a researcher and lecturer in biotechnology at Atma Jaya University in Jakarta.

So is Noryawati Mulyono, who is developing a new type of biodegradable plastic. She says today there are more opportunities for women to compete with men in the field of science.

"Nowadays there is a lot of science competitions, such as science olympiads, both national and international level,” said Mulyono. “So if the women have a good academic record, she can join the competition and the competition is disregarded about the gender."

While the United Nations credits Indonesia with near gender parity in the field of science, overall in Asia women only constitute 18 percent of researchers.

And despite parity in some fields, Indonesia still has a gender gap in the overall literacy rate. Poverty plays a large part in that situation, by keeping many girls out of school, although Indonesia has always valued education for girls as well as boys.

Education advocates say in a world where technological innovation is key to development, a gender gap in science can put countries at a competitive disadvantage.

Both Yanti and Mulyono recently received fellowships for their research from the cosmetic company L’Oreal. The awards are given to support gender equality in science.

Both women are passionate about their work.

Mulyono prefers to spend her vacation, or refreshing time as she calls it, collecting new samples of damar, a substance found in certain trees in Indonesia that she uses in her research.

"So last year I go to Kalimantan I found another species of dammar,” Mulyono added. “So while refreshing I still find something if I can have a chance to do research."

Yanti says the most rewarding aspect of being a scientist is the process of discovery.

"If we fail and it make like, yeah, sometimes we feel like we are losers, kind of like that,” said Yanti. “But after that and then, we think again. ‘OK, lets' read again, read again’, and then we study and then we try to find what's the mistake and what's the solution for that. For me that is the interesting or soul of research."

Indonesia has a long history of strong women leaders in a number of fields. Dewi Sartika, who built school for girls in the early part of the 20th century, was declared a national hero by the Indonesian government. Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia's first president, became the country's first female president in 2001. And economist Sri Mulyani Indrawati was the country's finance minister and is now the managing director of the World Bank.

Despite their recent recognition, neither woman says she feels like a role model or a pioneer because in their experience, women scientists are nothing extraordinary.

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