More women are needed in world of science

China Daily European Weekly - - LIFE - Alexan­dra Palt The au­thor is ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent of the L’Oreal Foun­da­tion. The views do not nec­es­sairly re­flect those of China Daily.

While th­ese last few months will un­doubt­edly re­main in our col­lec­tive his­tory as those of the global lib­er­a­tion of women’s voices in the world of cin­ema and in pol­i­tics, the not-for-profit sec­tor and even busi­ness, there is a sec­tor where women’s voices have re­mained as­ton­ish­ingly si­lent: science. This is the case de­spite the fact that science faces the kind of dis­par­ity about which we should all, as a society, be con­cerned.

If the pro­por­tion of women en­gaged in sci­en­tific ca­reers has grown, al­beit too slowly, many of them still come up against ob­sta­cles in ac­com­plish­ing long and flour­ish­ing ca­reers, achiev­ing po­si­tions of re­spon­si­bil­ity or gain­ing ac­cess to fund­ing. As a re­sult, in the Euro­pean Union, for ex­am­ple, only 11 per­cent of se­nior roles in aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions are cur­rently held by women. Fewer than 30 per­cent of re­searchers are women, and only 3 per­cent of No­bel Prizes for Science have ever been awarded to fe­male sci­en­tists.

How can we ex­plain that, af­ter years of fight­ing for gen­der equal­ity, the un­der­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in science should still be so glar­ing and, above all, what are the con­se­quences for our world?

They are nu­mer­ous and we must col­lec­tively seek to un­der­stand them, as much for the society that we want to build, as for the ad­vance of sci­en­tific progress and knowl­edge, which is cru­cial to solv­ing the great chal­lenges of our time.

The ab­sence of women has had, and will have, ma­jor con­se­quences. Let’s take two fields of sci­en­tific ap­pli­ca­tion.

First, in the area of health, there are mul­ti­ple ex­am­ples. Have we truly re­al­ized, for ex­am­ple, that, for a long time, the idea that car­dio­vas­cu­lar ill­nesses were a male is­sue pre­vailed? The prin­ci­pal clin­i­cal tri­als on re­duc­ing risk fac­tors were led ex­clu­sively by men. Even in 1999, it was ob­served that doc­tors un­der­took half as many ex­am­i­na­tions of car­diac ill­nesses among women as among men. The land­mark study on as­pirin as a means of re­duc­ing the risk of car­diac ar­rest en­com­passed more than 22,000 men and not one woman. Very sadly, this led to in­ap­pro­pri­ate treat­ment for women.

The sec­ond field, which is just as con­cern­ing, is men’s con­trol of the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, and the sub­se­quent im­pli­ca­tions for women. In the early stages of voice recog­ni­tion, there was no doubt about male bias in soft­ware de­vel­op­ment. Con­se­quently, not all that long ago, the num­ber of tran­scrip­tion er­rors when women used voice recog­ni­tion applications was con­sid­er­ably higher than among their male coun­ter­parts, since the applications had been de­signed from the out­set by men. In the do­main of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, which will have a de­fin­i­tive ef­fect on our fu­ture, stud­ies have also shown that im­age banks as­so­ci­ate women with do­mes­tic tasks and men with sports, and im­age recog­ni­tion soft­ware does not only re­pro­duce th­ese prej­u­dices, it am­pli­fies them. In con­trast with hu­mans, al­go­rithms can­not con­sciously fight ac­quired prej­u­dices. As ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence grad­u­ally in­vades our lives, the is­sues will only in­crease. If robots are used to model the world in the near fu­ture, it is vi­tal that they should be pro­grammed by men and women.

The idea is clearly not to say that women would be bet­ter sci­en­tists than men, but rather to be­come con­scious that we need a more bal­anced sci­en­tific com­mu­nity in terms of gen­der rep­re­sen­ta­tion, so as not to de­prive our­selves of ev­ery­one’s cre­ativ­ity and tal­ent, and to de­sign, through sci­en­tific progress, a more in­clu­sive society. Cre­at­ing coali­tions for a more in­clu­sive science is ur­gent, in or­der to best ad­dress the chal­lenges fac­ing the world, while ad­vanc­ing knowl­edge for the ben­e­fit of all.

The world needs science, and science, more than ever, needs women.

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