y work explores fundamental questions about who we are and where we came from,” says Professor Meemann Chang who, in a long career examining fish fossils, has discovered some of our earliest ancestors.
“To be able to figure out what a new fossil is, how it is related to other organisms, how it lived, and what it can tell us about the ancient environment” is truly enlightening, she says.
On March 22, Chang — an academic at the Chinese Academy of Sciences — was honored with a L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science award for the insights she has provided, one of which showed that lungfish were not, as previously thought, the evolutionary link between marine life and mammals — including humans — and that the distinction actually belongs to the sarcopterygian lobefinned fish, a marine life form dating back 400 million years.
“On this occasion it is impossible for me not to reflect on my career in vertebrate paleontology,” Chang said at the awards ceremony, held at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. “I started to study paleontology some 60 years ago when I was a student at Moscow State University.”
But the choice of career was not her own. “At that time it was arranged much like an arranged marriage,” she said.
Her speech also revealed some of the sacrifices she was forced to make over the years. When she thanked her family for their support, she gave special thanks to her daughter, “as I had to leave her with her grandmother when she was one month old. When she came back to me she was 10. But she never complained.”
Chang, now 82, was one of five laureates, each from a different continent, honored at the awards ceremony, which marked the 20th anniversary of the successful partnership between the L’Oreal Foundation and UNESCO to support female scientists and address a gender bias in science.
“For 20 years, UNESCO and the L’Oréal Foundation have been working side by side to support women scientists,” says Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO director-general. “Some 3,124 women scientists from around the world have been celebrated for their outstanding achievements, and each laureate has been recognized for excellence in her respective field of expertise.”
Over the past two decades, the percentage of women working in science has increased by about 12 percent, but less than 30 percent of researchers are women.
A glass ceiling is still evident for women in science. Only 3 percent of Nobel prizes for science have been awarded to women and only one woman has been awarded the Fields Medal for Mathematics since its creation in 1936.
“It is in the interests of everyone to change their mindsets,” says Jean Paul Agon, chairman and CEO of L’Oreal and chairman of the L’Oreal Foundation. “Women and men both have a role to play.”
That is why an initiative was launched at the March 22 event aimed at mobilizing men within the scientific community to actively engage in efforts to promote gender equality in science.
In China, the Young Women in Science Fellowships were created 15 years ago. These have rewarded and spotlighted a group of young female scientists “who are showing that women are just as capable of changing the world with the power of science as men,” says L’Oreal China CEO Stephane Rinderknech.