International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2021 — is this our year?
By Laura Guertin
The United Nations General Assembly established February 11 as an annual day for women and girls in science. As the UN Secretary-General António Guterres emphasizes in the video above, as a global community, females have yet to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science. Long-standing biases and gender stereotypes are in our way, such as representation in textbooks to television. But it’s now the 2021 celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science — and we’re making progress on the gender imbalance, right?
We know that for decades, multiple organizations have been working to advance women in science. The Association for Women in Science (AWIS) started its work in 1971 to achieve equity and full participation for all STEM women across all employment sectors. Founded in 2016, 500 Women Scientists has committed to a mission “to serve society by making science open, inclusive, and accessible and transform society by fighting racism, patriarchy, and oppressive societal norms.” And there are other science discipline-based organizations working to advance opportunities and access for women — the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN), Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM), and the list goes on.
We’re sharing our stories about being a woman in science and gathering for conversations on the challenges we have faced from our days as a student through to the time of our retirement, challenges ranging from harassment to discrimination to exclusion. In 2020 and continuing this year, screenings of the documentary Picture a Scientist has brought together virtual communities to normalize these discussions and open the eyes of those that have not seen that each and every woman in science has a story about barriers that have held (or are still holding) us back.
And then, 2020 introduced one new, additional headline — the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the careers of women in science. Nature reported that “female academics are posting fewer preprints and starting fewer research projects than their male peers” (Viglinone, 2020). Even when it comes to papers on COVID-19, the proportion of COVID-19 papers with a female first author was 19% lower than that for papers published in the same journals a year ago (Andersen et al., 2020).
Why is this? Perhaps the reduction in productivity is from our new responsibilities of overseeing children attending school via Zoom, to finding the space and time to effectively work at home. As quickly as we were required to shift gears and attempt to balance or work/life requirements, we will not experience a quick escape to “normalcy” (yet to be defined). An article in Scientific American describes the new reality, how women in science may have long-term impacts on their careers (Kramer, 2020).
Then there’s the Nature Communications article from November 2020. This is the article that was peer-reviewed and accepted for publication, the one where, “Our study … suggests that female protégés who remain in academia reap more benefits when mentored by males rather than equally-impactful females,” and “Our findings also suggest that mentors benefit more when working with male protégés rather than working with comparable female protégés, especially if the mentor is female.” After several tweets challenging the findings, an incredible statistical analysis by Hullman (2020), and a review by the editors, the article was retracted a month later.
So from the 2020 celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science to 2021, did we take one step forward or two steps back? Although it is important to know where we’ve come from and the path that led us to the present, we absolutely must keep moving forward to have a safe, equitable, accessible, and successful future for women and girls in science. Get ready 2021, we’re making this our year.