Role models and career support ‘key to keeping women in science’

Astrophysicists in Hong Kong and France say that public perceptions of gender should change and that more should be done to support women in science

November 12, 2020
Source: iStock

Jane Dai, an astrophysicist at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), started her recent talk at the Women in Space Science conference with a simple graphic. One half showed photos of her “senior mentors” (mostly men), while the other half showed “collaborators of my age” (more equally balanced with women).

“You can see the demographics, and how they could influence the ideal of what an astrophysicist ‘should’ look like,” she said.

The webinar, organised by HKU Women in Science and Engineering (Wise) and the French consulate for Hong Kong and Macao, featured astrophysicist Fatoumata Kébé, one of the few young women of colour to be a prominent scientist in France. She was also named one of Vanity Fair’s most influential French people in 2018 and, when asked about her inspiration, said there was no particular scientist she looked up to as a child.

“People asked: ‘Who is your role model?’ And I didn’t have one. I just told people I loved astrophysics,” she said. “Image is very important, and people need to see women in science. We see a lot of men on television as experts on science topics. We need to see women, too, showing that they can have both a career and a personal life.”

Laura André-Boyet, an astronaut instructor at the European Space Agency, said that “women need liberation. There’s a certain freedom in seeing others and saying: ‘I can do that’.”

Dr André-Boyet said she had “no problem” with gender quotas, which are used in some European countries but are less common in Asia. However, she questioned whether quotas – for job applicants, for example – genuinely contributed to solving problems. “Quotas are a quick and easy way to address inequality, but they should be results-based, not just a process,” she said.

She also said it was important to maintain support for women throughout their careers. “We have programmes to support young women, which is great, but what about support for older women?” she asked.

Ruolan Jin shared her experiences as a relatively older postdoctoral fellow at HKU, who had taken a less direct path to becoming an astrophysicist. She went back to university to acquire her PhD in her 40s, after having supported her younger siblings in their education and raising her own children.

“Women have different bodies and different minds. I wanted to take care of my babies, so when I went back to work, I was older,” she said, adding that this situation disqualified her from some funding that had age limits. 

The speakers discussed common problems such as the “leaky pipeline”, which prevents many female academics from becoming full professors, as well as stray comments about their gender or looks.

Caroline Dingle, an evolutionary ecologist and head of Wise, said that they were working with local high schools to encourage girls to study science. However, she added that it was important that “women already in science are supported and that the environment on campus is welcoming”.

“We know that diversity is good for science – and we want to keep half the world in the science talent pool,” Dr Dingle said.

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com

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