Dr. Jennifer Thomson on the Role of Women in Science

March 7, 2016

Why do we need more women in science?

One reason is that women might finally get the quality of health care that men receive. Currently, many women with heart disease are misdiagnosed in emergency rooms and sent home, possibly with fatal results, because women can exhibit different symptoms from men for cardiac problems. In addition, women often suffer more side effects from various medications based on clinical trials that focused largely on average-sized men.

Even rats used in scientific experiments have mainly been male, as researchers were concerned that while hormone fluctuations in female animals might skew the results, males could be used to reliably predict effects in both men and women. Surprise, surprise human women also experience hormone fluctuations!

In addition, rats and mice being tested for pain response apparently were afraid of male researchers. They showed stress in response to male researchers, but not to females. The stress returned if the female workers wore shirts previously worn by their male counterparts.

Another reason comes from agriculture. It is well known that women s crops feed families while males crops make money. More involvement of women in agricultural research could help bring food security to developing countries.

A recent analysis of the role of women in science academies worldwide has shown that although the number of women members is increasing, they still lag far behind men, with the average being 12 percent. However, if we consider the share of women in the governance of those academies in other words the people who do the work the percentage rises dramatically, in some cases to nearly 50 percent!

How can we get more women in science?

One of the ways to increase the number of women active in science is to give support to women with small children. In this respect, granting agencies could have a major impact if they instituted policies including

  • hold meetings during school hours
  • paying for schooling/childcare support
  • including childcare support at conferences
  • technical support during maternity leave
  • requiring gender representation at conferences, workshops, and on committees
  • extend cut-off for ‘young scientists awards’ from 35 to 40/45 years for women
  • establish gender equity/diversity committees at all institutions and require feedback on implementation

The world would be a better place if women s voices and actions were allowed to be heard in the fields of science and agriculture.