International Day of Women and Girls in Science

February 11, 2019 is recognized by the United Nations as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Dr. Savita Dhanvantari, a Scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute, has written a guest feature recognizing this day. 

A special issue of The Lancet was published on February 9, a few days before the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The Lancet is one of the foremost medical journals in the world, and this issue is devoted to “Women in Science, Medicine and Global Health”. It recognizes that, if science and medicine are to improve people’s lives, then scientists and physicians must represent the whole of society. Indeed, the Athena SWAN charter, established in 2005 to advance the careers of women in science, states that, “We acknowledge that academia cannot reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of all”.

It has been almost 50 years since the second wave of feminism. We actively encourage girls and young women to engage with science, technology, engineering and math, or “STEM” disciplines, in school. Women make up over 50 per cent of university and medical school admissions. However, there is a noticeable and documented drop-off in the number of women through the STEM academic ranks. 

Studies show that women in academic medicine and sciences have less access to mentoring and support networks, have fewer invitations to conferences, and receive less research funding than their male peers. The accumulation of such biases, sometimes referred to as a “glass obstacle course”, has led to a serious under-representation of women in senior positions, and a lack of role models for the very girls and women we encourage to pursue careers in STEM. 

In her important book “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story”, Angela Saini examines how women have played key roles in advancing scientific discoveries. Brilliant and insightful work from scientists like Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, and Jocelyn Bell Brunell resulted in the discovery of nuclear fission, the structure of DNA, and the existence of pulsars. However, they were never given proper recognition, but their male colleagues received Nobel Prizes. How can science be transformative if the talents of women are ignored?

Nevertheless, women have persisted. Biases are being recognized, resulting in a (slow) dismantling of the barriers that women in science face. And now, we are finding that having more women in science is changing the culture of science so that it truly reflects the whole of society. Women are changing how science is done, what questions are being asked, challenging assumptions and questioning conventional ideas. Only in this way will advances in science and medicine improve the lives of everyone.

Below are quotes from scientists and trainees at Lawson:

"Each individual scientist has their unique perspective on a question. Creating an environment with equal gender representation promotes scientific discussion and contributes to finding many of the answers that we’re looking for." Amanda Oakie, PhD student

"Having women in research and science breaks traditions and provides future generations with the confidence to enter the field of research themselves." Daisy (Qin) Sun, PhD student

"Diversity and inclusion are key to solving today’s complex research questions. The more minds working on any challenge, the closer we are to true innovation." Shannon Sibbald, Associate Scientist

"Being a female scientist means having the privilege and the responsibility of advancing humanity using scientific methodology. It means taking advantage of opportunities to contribute my quota to science. It means I get witness and be part of the improving human lives through science at Lawson." Onyebuchi Omodon, Masters student

"Science problems can be solved by men and woman alike, and it is important to send that message to young woman everywhere.” Melissa Fenech, PhD student

"To push the boundaries of science, it is critical to have diversity. Women provide a much-needed perspective when pursuing new knowledge!" Lawrence Yip, PhD student

“Progress and productivity in STEM are functions of inclusion." Sharanya Menon, thesis student

"It means that every day through my research, I strive to understand, to catalyze, to capture and to scale the transformative changes we are capable of making to achieve health and wellbeing for all." Arlene MacDougall, Scientist

"Everyone brings their own unique perspective to the research enterprise. We need all backgrounds and points of view represented in order to develop the best technologies for personalized medicine. Research teams representing all backgrounds, including the voice of women, have a necessary and important contribution to make for any meaningful advances in medicine." Donna Goldhawk, Scientist

“I am proud to be a female Lawson scientist. I am thankful to all the women who have worked tirelessly to ensure that women have a place in science. It is because of their work to open doors for women, that I am able to demonstrate to young girls today that science has room for and invites their opinions and perspectives. I look forward to the day where one’s interest in science is celebrate and encouraged regardless of their gender.” Harley Williams, MSc student

"Just like every profession, it is beneficial to have expertise and opinions from all people, including but not limited to different genders. Including women in science means more diverse perspectives on the research front, and innovative ideas being investigated. Through collaboration, the knowledge base can only increase and result in beneficial research outcomes and a more sustainable, inclusive future. To empower, include and encourage women to consider a career in science is necessary and should be celebrated." Emily Chemnitz, Masters student

"When I entered medical school in 1980 I had few women mentors. I have witnessed the importance and value women bring to medicine and scientific research." Sharon Koivu