Women and Girls in Science
February 11, 2019
By Harry Seely, BSc Student
In 1903, the physicist Dr. Marie Curie became the first woman in history to win a Nobel Prize (in physics) for her pioneering research on radioactivity and went on to become one of the few people ever win a second Nobel Prize (in chemistry) later on in her career. In 1953, Dr. Rosalind Franklin made fundamental contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA using X-Ray Crystallography, ultimately paving the way for the highly controversial and important field of modern genetic engineering. Throughout her 55-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees, Dr. Jane Goodall became one of the world’s leading experts on primates and uncovered countless mysteries that explain the relationship between humans and our closest genetic predecessors. These are simply a few of the many impressive female scientists that have not only carved out a place for women in science, but have changed the world while doing it.
While women have come an incredibly long way in science since the era of men dominating the field, there is still work to be done before women become fully represented in the scientific community. A study by UNESCO found that less than 30% of scientific research positions around the world are held by women (UNESCO, 2018). While women are well represented in some disciplines such as molecular biology and neuroscience, where approximately half of PhDs are held by females in the United States, fewer than 20% of all PhDs in physics and computer science are held by women (National Science Foundation, 2011). Another example of a glaring gender discrepancy in the field of biology can be found in a recent publication in Nature recommending “100 articles every ecologist should read”, where 97 of the articles mentioned were first authored by men (Courchamp and Bradshaw, 2017).
Why is it that women are underrepresented in science? What are the consequences of this gender discrepancy for scientific progress? What is the future of women in science? To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11), we share the stories, aspirations and challenges of three women in sciences at the University of Guelph.
The Future Faces of Women in Science:
Mehra Balsara is an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph who studies Wildlife Conservation and Biology. Mehra has a keen interest in arctic ecology and aspires to fill our knowledge gaps on how climate change and other anthropogenic influences will shape the future arctic flora and fauna. Mehra has been aware of gender differences within the sciences in the past and acknowledges that they exist however, she has never felt in any way her experience as a woman in science has been any different than that of her male friends.
Mehra believes that the gender discrepancies in the sciences are largely dependent on your discipline and she feels that biology is not a gender limited field while other fields such as physics and chemistry may be different. Mehra is proud to be a woman in the sciences and is very optimistic and excited about her future career path.
Aleksandra Dolezal is a Master of Science student in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Guelph who is a passionate, aspiring entomologist. Under the supervision of BiRN member Dr. Andrew MacDougall, Aleksandra investigates plant-insect relationships in agricultural areas. She explained how proud she is to be a member of Dr. McDougall’s lab and how much he has pushed her to strive for her research goals. Aleksandra attributes the underrepresentation of women in science as a confidence issue. She experiences a lack of confidence as a woman when it comes to sharing her research ideas with “big names” in her field, the overwhelming majority of which are male. She describes her list of inspiring scientists and struggles to name one woman; this to Aleksandra, is a problem. She believes that having female scientists to look up to early on in education is fundamental for bringing more girls into male dominated fields such as Entomology.
Aleksandra points out how she felt more confident when postdoctoral fellow Dr. Ellen Esch joined Dr. MacDougall’s lab; she felt much more comfortable discussing ideas with another female scientist. Aleksandra believes that the current underrepresentation of women in science is a large-scale loss of potential ideas, talent and passion. Ultimately, Aleksandra believes that one of the most important issues surrounding women in science is mental health. She believes that women should have better support networks in the sciences, and thinks that women and girls should be encouraged to seek out help and support if it is needed. Overall, Aleksandra is ecstatic about her path in entomology and science so far and she sees the barriers that tend to hold women back in science crumbling down in the future.
Dr. Marjorie Sorensen is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Guelph, she works in the lab of BiRN member Dr. Ryan Norris investigating avian population dynamics and their response to climate change. Her research incorporates both field observations and laboratory analyses with the goal of better understanding concepts such as the seasonal reproductive success of Pacific seabirds and the cost of malaria infection for migratory birds in Africa.
Dr. Sorensen attended UBC for her BSc in Biology, completed her PhD at Cambridge University in the UK, and did postdoctoral research at Senckenberg Institute in Germany. Dr. Sorensen feels very lucky to have known incredibly supportive female scientists during her academic career who pushed her towards opportunities. One of her earliest high school teachers was an especially inspirational figure for her and sparked her interest in wildlife biology. Dr. Sorensen feels fortunate to not have experienced overt gender discrimination while studying and working in science. However, she does struggle with the lengthy academic timeline prior to landing a permanent position that is not uncommon in science. She feels some tension between the timing of possibly having children and the uncertainty around when she will secure employment.
UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Women in Science. 2018. http://uis.unesco.org/en/topic/women-science
Courchamp F and Bradshaw CJA. 2017. 100 articles every ecologist should read. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2: 395–401.
National Science Foundation (NSF), Survey of Earned Doctorates. 2011. www.nsf.gov/statistics/srvydoctorates/.