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UNESCO:  Women Slowly Gaining Ground in Science Professions - 2002-07-02

Your grandmother might never have considered becoming a scientist, yet today, more women are choosing science as a career. Women are still a minority in many areas of science, but continue to make strides in a field once almost entirely dominated by men.

When Ana Maria Lopez Colomé was starting her career as a biologist 30 years ago, science was a male domain in her native Mexico. Now, she is a biology professor at the country's National University. Because of women like her, science is no longer for men only.

"Gradually, women have been incorporated to what they did not undertake previously, and one of these activities is science. Now we have lots of women working in science," she said.

In Egypt, National Research Center geneticist Nagwa Meguid has been in science for 26 years. She has just started a study on male sterility and now has male patients, which would have been impossible in the past. "There was no opportunity between men and women 10 years or 15 years ago. But, nowadays women can work in science. So it's nowadays, our golden time," she said.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, says women in science are gaining ground. But progress is slow. UNESCO data show that women worldwide make up only three percent of Academy of Science members, and rarely earn the most prestigious honors. In the United States and Japan, only one in 10 physics doctorates goes to women. The European Union Commission on Women and Science has found that women hold only 10 percent of the top science positions in Europe, although they are half the science graduates.

The Commission chair, German molecular biologist Mary Osborn, has said that to increase these numbers, more women need to become involved in policy making.

"My interest has always been to see more women on top-level committees that control policy and allocate funds," Ms. Osborn said.

The situation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is typical. MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins says that while the number of female professors at the school increased 50 percent in the last decade, they still make up only 16 percent of the total. She argues that women scientists can more effectively promote their cause only when they are in a position of power.

"We need to have women integrated into the system from the top to the bottom. You need to have them at every level of the administration. Then, when they participate in the administration, they see how the system does not work for women, and they can help to change it so that it does," Ms. Hopkins said.

But on their way to the top, female scientists carry a load their male counterparts do not. The European Commission says they have greater family responsibilities, as do women in every occupation. This is particularly true of young women, who are often establishing both careers and families. Egyptian geneticist Nagwa Meguid says juggling the two is challenging.

"Yes, it is difficult, because I am a wife and a mother of two children. But I try to arrange my time, some time for my husband, some time for my children, family, and other time, the big time, for my research," she said.

MIT's Nancy Hopkins said she gave up a lot of things for science because nothing was as rewarding. She points out that to succeed in the profession, women have to learn to adapt psychologically to working in a male-dominated environment.

"I found that science was a very hard profession for women. And I felt it was so fiercely competitive. And I was not really brought up to behave in ways that many of my male colleagues did. And I think I found that the hardest thing of all," Ms. Hopkins said.

Mexican biologist Ana Maria Lopez Colomé said that while women and men might have different approaches to science, they can achieve more working together than apart. She noted that each gender has different strengths.

"Women are more directed to details unseen to men. Men are more focused to promote the results they have. So I think that joining these two forces we can advance in the generation of knowledge," she said.

To motivate women scientists, several grants have been established internationally. For example, the Danish government has provided 11 million Euro to encourage more young female researchers to pursue innovative studies. UNESCO and the cosmetic company L'Oreal jointly give five $20,000 annual awards for outstanding female researchers from each continent.

As the European Commission on Women and Science states, women scientists are not prepared to accept the notion that sex is related to success in scientific research.