Women in Science: Lost in a Black Hole?

February 18, 2016

What do gravitational waves and the first International Day of Women and Girls in Science have in common? Both were celebrated on 11 Feb, 2016 but only one appeared to cause a ripple effect across the universe.

As the world marvelled at the confirmation of waves in space time – a phenomenon Einstein predicted one hundred years ago but doubted humans would ever confirm – the first designated day of women in science was eclipsed.

On 15 December 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution, proclaiming 11 February of each year the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The UN itself announced this through their understated web site, but not a single major news source covered the story on that day or in the week since the announcement.

On page two of a Google search, Yahoo Finance Canada and Tech Times published short articles highlighting the newly-created day, part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, which seeks greater parity between developed and developing countries regarding health, welfare and education.

Should it matter that most people didn’t hear about the day? Yes and no. Only 28 percent of researchers worldwide are women. Not only are they currently underrepresented in scientific fields (only 30 percent of women make up the tech industry), they are also underpaid compared with men who hold the same jobs. Clearly there is still much ground to cover when it comes to women in science.

So yes, it matters.

Recognizing a problem is always the first step toward addressing it, and the UN resolution founding the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is an excellent development.” said the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Canadian Minister of Science. “As a scientist and a woman, I cannot express how excited I am to see the United Nations take up a cause that I have championed my entire life.”

But women are enrolling and graduating at higher rates than men in nearly all advanced degree programs in both the US and UK. This trend has been present for the past decade, suggesting that more women will pursue careers in science over time.

Women are also taking up more leadership roles in science. The LIGO team that announced the confirmation of gravitational waves had a woman at the healm. Gabriela Gonzalez was front and center during the press conference. The LIGO Scientific Collaboration, the group of scientist across the world who formed the team effort to confirm gravitational waves, states as one of its goals to champion the recruitment of more qualified women and minorities into the field. “We also pledge to work to increase the numbers of women and under-represented minorities that actively participate in the LSC, to pursue recruitment, mentoring, retention and promotion of women and under-represented minority scientists and engineers and to maximize their contribution to excellence in our research.”

So no, it shouldn’t matter that the International Day of Women and Girls in Science was overshadowed by gravitational waves, because women were being seen and heard as part of that effort. Women in the lab, in spacesuits, at the forefront of gene-editing technology is no longer eyebrow-raising. It’s becoming the new normal. And next year, barring the announcement of life on other planets, we can expect 11 Feb to be a day we celebrate the narrowing gap of gender inequality in science.



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