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AAAS Champions Women in Science at Two International Events

Attendees at Women Leaders in Science, Technology and Engineering +10 came to discuss their successes and obstacles. | Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences

Speakers at two international conferences supported by AAAS stressed the importance of increased female representation in scientific fields to take maximum advantage of available talent and optimize solutions to global challenges.

If more women are not included in STEM leadership, “We lose talent, we lose perspective and we invent solutions for a few when we should be inventing solutions for all,” said Julia MacKenzie, AAAS director of international relations, at the World Science Forum, held November 7-10 in Jordan.

The WSF, begun in 2003 by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, along with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, UNESCO and the International Council for Science, drew nearly 3,000 participants from 140 countries to its four-day biennial gathering. The conference presented a huge array of issues with a theme of Science for Peace. At the opening ceremony, AAAS Chief Executive Officer Rush Holt stressed the necessity of both international collaboration and local involvement among scientists.

“For the scientific enterprise to contribute to peace and sustainable development, we must ensure that scientists and ideas can move freely across the globe so science can thrive for the benefit of all people,” said Holt, who is also the executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “Simultaneously, we must ensure that scientists are working in and for their local communities.”

Adding the issue of gender equity while invoking the WSF theme, Katalin Bogyay, Hungarian representative to the United Nations, touched on how “diversity among innovators helps guarantee that the products and services created contribute to sustainable peace and prosperity.”

The WSF offered five sessions devoted specifically to the issue of women’s participation and leadership in science and engineering throughout the world, and it included a call for new policies and further study to “positively affect gender equality in STEM” in its 2017 declaration. Meanwhile, a conference focused exclusively on women that took place in Kuwait just two weeks before — Women Leaders in Science, Technology, and Engineering +10 (WLSTE+10) — drew accomplished women from 
all over the world, who came together to serve as role models and inspiration for the next generation of women in science.

WLSTE+10 was held October 23-25 under the patronage of Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, in collaboration with the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences, AAAS, the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, the U.S. State Department and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development.

At a plenary session at WLSTE+10, AAAS Chief Operating Officer Celeste Rohlfing cited the names of women in three top leadership positions at AAAS — Chair of the AAAS Board Barbara Schaal, President Susan Hockfield and President-Elect Margaret Hamburg. Rohlfing said that it is AAAS’s mission to advance science and engineering “throughout the world to the benefit of all people.”

“We are only able to do that,” Rohlfing said, if a diverse group of scientists and engineers — “not just men, not just Americans, not just Europeans — are empowered to reach their full potential as leaders.”

Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, president of Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society, spoke forcefully at WLSTE+10 about the continuing imbalance in women’s access to leadership positions in science, not only in the Middle East but also globally.

“All of our societies remain deeply gendered and men continue to benefit disproportionately from socioeconomic advance, whether in employment, opportunities to innovate, or research prospects,” Princess Sumaya said. “Ten years on,” she said, referring to the time that has elapsed since the first WLSTE was held, “we have lost much of another generation of women.”

Princess Sumaya pointed out that women make up only about 15% of the board members in the world’s biggest innovation hub, Silicon Valley.

Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS education and human resources programs, also cited a stark illustration of gender inequity in a WLSTE+10 session on women scientists in leadership roles. Although women receive approximately half of the medical degrees awarded in the United States, she said, only 16% of medical school deans are women.

“So, access is one thing. Leadership is another,” said Malcom.

Malcom listed interventions that can improve women’s participation in science, such as STEM education programs for girls, prizes that recognize women scientists, international collaboration among and recognition of women in science, women’s organizations and conferences and programs that examine policies that keep women out of leadership roles.

Other speakers referred to a AAAS-organized initiative called SEA Change, which is designed to recognize and distingish departments, colleges and institutions of higher learning for their diversity and inclusion, including gender diversity -- with bronze, silver and gold awards. The program was inspired by Athena SWAN in the United Kingdom. Institutions would voluntarily collect data, set goals and develop action plans for improving their recruitment, hiring and retention of diverse STEM faculty and their recruitment and success rates among diverse graduate and undergraduate STEM students.

In a WSF presentation, Princess Sumaya, who was instrumental in bringing the forum to Jordan, said that in her country and the Arab world, men and women have been working together in science “for a very long time.” She said, however, that like in many other places, the struggle for gender equity continues, and Jordan has begun implementing initiatives, for instance, to keep more talented women in the workforce after they graduate.

Éva Kondorosi said that studies by the European Research Council, where she is a vice president, showed a problem in how women scientists perceive of or present their capabilities. More men say they can be “excellent leaders” and use “superlatives when they [talk] about themselves” on grant applications, while women find it difficult to speak “enthusiastically about themselves,” Kondorosi said.

Grace Naledi Pandor, South African science and technology minister, stressed the need to gather the data on women’s participation in order to implement effective solutions. “We should stop assuming that women are a minority,” Pandor said, “and ask why we aren’t using 50% of our talent.”

“We need to look at the presence, the performance, the impact and the degree to which women are seen in the science sector and matter within science. Decisions rely on data.”

MacKenzie agreed, adding that it is necessary “to scrutinize the data and ask more questions,” examining which women still don’t have access, which fields of STEM are least attended by women, whether women are staying in the workforce and achieving leadership positions and what is holding women back. AAAS, MacKenzie added. “is committed to asking and answering those questions.”

This article originally appeared AAAS News & Notes in the November 24 issue of Science.

[Associated image: Session entitled Women as Leaders for Diversity and Development at the World Science Forum in Jordan/World Science Forum 2017]