The L’Oréal Foundation and UNESCO last month honoured five women who stood out for their excellent work in the fields of physical science, mathematics and computer science. The women were unveiled as part of the 23rd edition ‘For Women in Science International Awards’. Representing every major region of the world, the women were also celebrated as part of the ‘International Day for Women and Girls in Science’, which aims to increase the number of women in the science discipline.
Women are still under-represented in science
Recent UNESCO study indicates that even though the number of women in science is on the rise – estimated to be just over 33% of the world’s researchers – progress is still worryingly slow, particularly in physical sciences, mathematics, computer science and engineering.1. The study also noted that only 28% of engineering graduates and 40% of computer science graduates are women.
Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, assistant director-general for natural sciences at UNESCO, said what the study shows is that it is not enough to attract women to a scientific or technological discipline. Rather, what is important is how to retain them and also make sure their careers are not strewn with obstacles, said Nair-Bedouelle, adding that their achievements should be recognised and supported by the international scientific community. “Of the 33% of researchers, only12% of them, on average, are members of national academies of sciences around the world,” she said.
This is not only a matter of equality, said Nair-Bedouelle, but it is also a global social issue, particularly given that the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as “Revolution 4.0”, will be driven by these scientific fields where women are most absent. She said the lack of inclusiveness has already created “dangerous biases” particularly in areas such as artificial intelligence where women represent just 22% of people working in this field.
Nair-Bedouelle also claimed that, algorithms frequently lead to discrimination mechanisms. Another alarming prospect, she added, is the over-representation of all women in jobs doomed to obsolescence. “By 2050 half of all jobs in the world today are set to disappear, affecting 70% of women in a country like the United Kingdom,” she said.
Said Nair-Bedouelle: “It is therefore vital to act in favour of more inclusive research, and to encourage young girls to pursue careers in science, which too few still consider, despite being highly motivated to make a difference. Three out of four girls in Europe would like to contribute positively to the world through their jobs, but only 37% plan to pursue a career in science.”
Alexandra Palt, executive vice-president of the L’Oréal Foundation, said: “The ‘invisibilisation’ of women in science is still too significant. Today, less than 4% of the scientific Nobel Prizes have been awarded to women and the glass ceiling still persists in research. We absolutely must aspire to a profound transformation of institutions, of teaching and promotion of female researchers, of the system as a whole. While the gender imbalance remains in science, we will never be able to meet the challenges of an inclusive society or to tackle the scientific issues the world is facing.”
23 Years of engagement for women in science
The L’Oréal Foundation and UNESCO said they are committed to the promotion of women in science, adding that this is based on their conviction that the world needs science, and that science needs women.
In particular both organisations aim to render women more visible, make their talent known and inspire vocations. Since the creation of the ‘For Women in Science’ program in 1998, 117 Laureates and over 3,500 talented young scientists, PhD candidates and post-doctorates have been supported and honoured in 117 countries.
Laureate for Africa and the Arab States: Professor Catherine Ngila – Chemistry
Ngila wears many hats: she is the acting executive director of the African Academy of Sciences, former deputy vice-chancellor in charge of academic and student affairs (DVC-AA) at Riara University, Kenya, and visiting professor of applied chemistry at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.
She was recognised for introducing and developing nanotechnology-based analytical methods for the monitoring of water pollutants and applying them in countries heavily impacted by pollution. Ngila’s innovative work is of vital importance for the development of sustainable water resource management and respecting the environment.
Laureate for Asia and the Pacific: Professor Kyoko Nozaki – Chemistry
Professor of Chemistry at the University of Tokyo, Japan, Nozaki received the accolade for her pioneering, creative contributions within the field of synthetic chemistry, and their importance to industrial innovation. Her research has led to new, highly effective and environmentally friendly production processes to manufacture molecules useful for medicine and sustainable agriculture.
Laureate for North America: Professor Shafi Goldwasser – Computer Science
Goldwasser is the director of the Simons Institute for the theory of computing, Professor in electrical engineering and computer sciences at University of California Berkeley, South African Professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, United States of America and Professor of computer science and applied mathematics at Weizmann Institute, Israel.
She received the award for her pioneering and fundamental work in computer science and cryptography, which is essential for secure communication over the internet as well as for shared computation on private data. Her research has a significant impact on our understanding of large classes of problems for which computers cannot efficiently find approximate solutions.
Laureate for Europe: Professor Françoise Combes – Astrophysics
Professor and Galaxies and Cosmology chair at the Collège de France in Paris, and astrophysicist at the Paris Observatory – PSL, France, Combes was awarded for her outstanding legacy in astrophysics which ranges from the discovery of molecules in the interstellar space to supercomputer simulations of galaxy formation. Her work has been crucial in our understanding of the birth and evolution of stars and galaxies, including the role played by supermassive black holes at galactic centres.
Laureate for Latin America and the Caribbeans: Professor Alicia Dickenstein – Mathematics
Dickenstein is Professor of mathematics at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. She got the nod for her outstanding contributions at the forefront of mathematical innovation by leveraging algebraic geometry in the field of molecular biology.
Her research enables scientists to understand the precise structures and behaviour of cells and molecules, even at a microscopic scale. Operating at the frontier between pure and applied mathematics, she has forged important links to physics and chemistry, and enabled biologists to gain an in-depth structural understanding of biochemical reactions and enzymatic network.