Women in science: new lights and old shadows

Women in science: new lights and old shadows

A text by Valérie Morquette, Advisor, Communications and Public Relations at the IRCM

“With all its ups and downs, no other career would have brought me such sense of pride and self-accomplishment.” Dr. May Faraj, Principal Investigator and lab Director at the IRCM

Women have always played an essential role in the development and transmission of scientific knowledge. Long before the existence of empirical science, they were involved in the observation of diseases, their causes and the search for solutions. Thus, despite the obliteration of women from various historical records until recently, the History of Science sporadically reveals in its thread a female figure who, in good conscience, can hardly be ignored. From Merit-Ptah, female chief physician of the Pharaoh’s Second Dynasty of Egypt court, to Marie Curie, the only one to have received two Nobel Prizes for two different disciplines, to our modern female researchers, the immense impact of women in science is neither new nor debatable. But it is little recognized.

Recently, polls showed that one in two Canadians is unable to name a woman in science, let alone her achievements. Let this sink in…

February 11 marks the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. One day is not enough to grasp the immeasurable contribution of women in science, nor the challenges that still hinder the way. However, it remains a good pretext to bring this subject back to the foreground and to continue to fight persistent inequalities. For the occasion, the IRCM female researchers agreed to share their experiences and their hopes.

The IRCM, Committed for Decades

It has been nearly 40 years since the IRCM welcomed its first female researcher. At the time, no one could have known how much this brilliant young recruit would contribute to scientific research in Quebec. Dr. Trang Hoang developed her career within the IRCM and participated in the foundation of the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer (IRIC), where she has been pursuing her work since 2003. Like Dr. Hoang, the IRCM is the place where many other women laid the foundations of their careers as researchers and laboratory directors. Since then, more than a dozen have passed through our walls, including the current Chief Scientific Advisor of Canada, Dr. Mona Nemer.

Today at the IRCM, we are extremely proud to count among our ranks women researchers of international calibre who contribute to advancing health knowledge and the cause of women in science. We salute the excellent work of our researchers and laboratory directors, Drs. Emilia Liana Falcone, Jennifer Estall, Marie Kmita, Marie Trudel, Marlene Oeffinger, May Faraj, Nicole Francis and Sophie Bernard, many of whom stand out as international leaders in their fields of study. In addition to directing cutting-edge research, these exceptional women also play an important role as mentors, deeply involved in the training of the next generation of scientists, in the Institute’s academic life, as well as its influence far beyond our borders.

Moving in the Right Direction

Over 100 years after Marie-Curie's first Nobel Prize, times have certainly changed, and giant strides were made. Many of the IRCM's women researchers testify to the tremendous support they received from their male supervisors and colleagues, who encouraged them to surpass themselves and believe in their ability to become independent scientists or lab directors, despite the odds. "I was lucky to have exceptional mentors who supported me and helped me to progress without ever treating me differently from my male colleagues," confessed Dr. Marie Kmita, supported by Dr. Marlene Oeffinger who said : “I did not experience misogyny during my school and university career, where I was also able to participate in mentoring programs encouraging women to pursue a scientific career."

It is true that in research and health training institutions, women are increasingly present. In many universities, they have represented more than 50 percent of graduates in biomedical sciences or medicine, since the 90s. “I remember growing up thinking that the challenges of women in STEM were a thing of the past, admits Dr. Jennifer Estall. In university, I saw nothing to make me think otherwise – my classrooms were filled with people of all genders, identities, and backgrounds."

In our research institutions, they are represented at all professional levels. They are lab directors, research associates, assistants and technicians, technological platform specialists, etc. However, while women are happily jumping into available science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) training, they ultimately make up only 20 percent of the STEM workforce, according to an article published by Québec Sciences last March. They also remain underrepresented in spheres of influence and power.

“It wasn’t until the middle of my post doc that I started to witness the attrition of women from science. And I couldn’t fault any of them – the challenges were suddenly very real,” adds Dr. Estall.

“On the very day I defended my PhD thesis with distinction, someone on my committee warned me against proceeding into academia! It is a challenging career he said, especially for a non-Caucasian woman immigrant,” recalls Dr. May Faraj.

These observations and the experiences reported by those involved, show the new face of the struggle for equality for women in science. Far beyond the mere access to training or knowledge, it is now a matter of getting conditions equal to that of their male colleagues, to develop their full potential and to access the places of decision-making and power.

Stereotypes That Are Deeply Rooted

As shocking as it may seem in 2022, the new face of this fight must overcome the same old hurdles. Stereotypes associated with women do indeed die hard. Among them, the most devastating are unequivocally those that insidiously and silently discredit their work. It is often reflected by an irrational lack of recognition of their work and results, and by a lack of both moral and financial support.

All of this is deeply rooted in an archaic belief that science and female gender do not mix well. This prejudice, well-established from childhood as evidenced by a study published in PNAS by Nozek et al., has become an unconscious bias which keeps generating multiple aberrations, even in an environment where evidence-based knowledge is law.

Thus, even when they publish their results in prestigious scientific journals, women researchers face more difficulties promoting their candidacy as research lab directors. When they succeed, they tend to receive lower wages and fewer funds. In this regard, a landmark study by Dr. Holly Witteman of Laval University, published in the Lancet in 2019, revealed that this gap has significant consequences throughout their careers. Women are also less exposed to public recognition and less called upon to comment on scientific facts in the public arena, even with the strongest track record. They also receive fewer prestigious awards. This differential treatment, called the “Matilda effect,” has been widely studied and theorized by science historian Margaret Rossiter and others.

Women in science also enjoy less consideration than their male colleagues, especially when hardships arise. In times of difficulty, their capabilities and productivity tend to be questioned. And finally, the age-old family question remains a big elephant in the room, silent, but oh so present for many young female researchers, while on this same matter their male colleagues are not bothered: “Women do not receive the same support to be principal investigators while having a family, for example. Many do not consider it worth the sacrifices they may have to make and the overall struggle,” explains Dr. Marlene Oeffinger.

For the record, let us remember that when her engagement was announced, Harriet Brooks, the first female nuclear physicist of Canada, was rapidly informed that her contract as a researcher at Barnard College in New York would immediately be terminated in the event of her marriage. She had to sacrifice her heart's ambitions on the altar of science. It was in 1903. Almost 120 years ago…

Changing Mindsets

Fortunately, things are changing. More and more male scientists of all ages are feeling concerned and taking a stand openly to support their colleagues' fight for equality.

“We work alongside wonderful female researchers every day, and many of us have had exceptional female mentors. We see the hindrances they experience and I believe that we all have a role to play in changing this. Fortunately, I know that my colleagues agree,” says Dr. Michel Cayouette, Vice President of Academic Affairs and lab Director at the IRCM.

Thanks to advances in recent years, more and more women in science are taking their place, asserting their rights, assuming their femininity and claiming their rightful place in scientific decision-making spheres.

“I remember the women who pursued powerful leadership positions, despite obviously unbalanced odds. I remember PIs (men and women) who openly fought for their female trainees to be recognized in authorship, intellectual credit, and opportunity. I know there are still challenges for women in science, but personally seeing these examples of bravery and success made the difference for me, making me hopeful for the future.”  Dr. Jennifer Estall 

To ensure and accelerate change, these issues must continue to be the subject of open conversations and concrete actions, both at the individual and institutional levels. And in this regard, each institution must act and give itself the means to generate change. At the IRCM, we are determined to redouble efforts. "The IRCM will continue to be part of the solution, by setting an example of concrete actions to counter systemic and traditional biases," said Dr. Jean-François Côté, President and Scientific Director at the IRCM. This is not only necessary from a human point of view, but essential for the future of our field. We want to be a model in this sense. " 

The career of a researcher: a worthwhile journey 

Although we must recognize how far we have come and the remaining challenges, the future of the women in science is far from bleak. Science remains an enriching and rewarding life path for those who have chosen it. Far beyond the pitfalls, being Driven by life on a daily basis is an extraordinary and unique experience. And at the IRCM, none of our female researchers would change paths if they had to start over.

On this day, we would like to pay tribute to all the women in science at the IRCM, past, present and future. To our researchers and professionals, thank you for contributing, through excellence and perseverance, to paving the way for hundreds of students  ̶  both male and female  ̶   who need these important female role models as representation is so crucial to the evolution of perceptions and mentalities. To the young women in training, thank you for keeping the hope. To end this beautiful International Day of Women and Girls in Science in style, let's keep these few words for the future:

“Basically, I am passionate about research, and research is my daily life. So that's enough to keep me motivated, despite the pitfalls. You have to go with your heart." Dr. Marie Kmita.

“In the face of obstacles, I listened to the little voice inside, and remembered what brings me joy and moves me forward. My advice to future young female researchers is to do the same. Despite its ups and downs, no other career would have brought me such a sense of pride and accomplishment." Dr. May Faraj

On behalf of the IRCM community, we wish a day filled with hope to all women and girls in science from here and elsewhere.

Read our article Women in Science: In Their Own Words

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