The Covid-19 crisis has set women’s rights back everywhere, including in science. The pandemic, and its consequential lockdowns, have laid bare the existing disparities in the scientific system and widened the gender gap. Several studies show that women scientists, particularly those with young children and in the earlier stages of their careers, have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. And female researchers have been made almost invisible in decision-making, leadership, and the media, despite the fact that they have been on the front line of the fight against Covid-19, playing a pivotal role across the world, from advancing knowledge of the virus to treating patients and developing vaccines. Convinced that it is time to celebrate female scientific excellence and to shed light on some of the world’s leading and most inspiring female researchers, the Fondation L’Oréal and Unesco are launching the For Women in Science Festival on December 7.
The event will see 40 inspiring women from all over the world, reflecting just how essential women scientists have proven to be in safeguarding our health and planet in an emergency. “While the pandemic has demonstrated the ingenuity of women researchers, several studies show that female scientists, particularly those with young children and those in the earlier stages of their careers, are hardest hit by the pandemic,” says Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences of Unesco.
The content lineup of 40 talks, interviews, panel discussions, and more will tackle two key themes that have been highlighted by the Covid-19 crisis: Advancing Global Health and Decoding the Tech Revolution. “These are two issues where gender bias in research has led to strong consequences already,” says Alexandra Palt, executive vice president of the Fondation L’Oréal and creator of the For Women in Science Festival with Unesco. According to the latest Unesco science report, women make up 33% of researchers. “We have to be very clear that there is discrimination, there is sexism, and there is bias,” says Palt. “This bias is not always conscious and deliberate, but it exists, so there is a lot of work that needs to be done to change science culture.”
In the medical world, women have often been assumed to be smaller men. Only recently was it discovered that women experience heart attacks with entirely different symptoms than men, meaning that lives were lost simply because not enough women were involved in the research. In the technology world, women aren’t the ones programming the algorithms. In fact, according to Unesco’s 2021 Science report, just 22% of professionals working in the AI field are women; that means the algorithms think like men, which has a myriad of knock-on effects.
Not to be missed is the Gender & Climate: Grow Women’s Leadership panel discussion. Moderated by Adam Baidawi, it will feature Dr Emily Choy, Dr Seetha Coleman-Kammula, Nisreen Elsaim, Prof. Catherine Ngila, and HE Prof Judi Wakhungu. The roundtable session will delve into how women are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and how we can enable them to become leaders of climate action in their communities, regions, and countries.
“There is progress in the numbers and there is progress on the awareness,” says Palt. “Now, we need to see the glass ceiling break down to put women at the level of recognition that they should have.” The Fondation L’Oréal and Unesco’s For Women in Science Festival is one way of providing that recognition, but it’s also about exposing the cracks in the system. “What we’re aiming for with this is to create awareness, create passion, and encourage future generations,” says Palt, “because the pressure to change will come from society as a whole, not just from us.”
The virtual Festival and all the content are available on demand as of December 7 on Events.forwomeninscience.com.