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International Women’s Day: Make it happen!

Published: 2015-03-07

The role for science in improving everyone’s quality of life is highly prominent today and women's active inclusion and participation is more relevant and vital than ever. Women make up a large portion of any nation's human resources, providing a rich potential supply of talented scientists and innovators. Yet, the Institute for Statistics at UNESCO, believes that only 27% of the world's total science researchers are women. According to the Science Writer (soprano and cellist) Gwyneth Dickey Zakaib, writing in Nature, the metaphor that best describes the challenge facing women in science today is the invisible web, with intertwined strands representing cultural, societal, personal, institutional, political, and economic obstacles. According to UNCTAD the root of many obstacles begins with inconsistent education. Out of all illiterate adults worldwide, two thirds are women. Access to consistent, long-term education especially in science remains elusive for many girls. Those who emerge anyway into the beginnings of a science career often find that conforming to work expectations in order to advance a their career (competing for a tenure-track position, for example) coincides with a woman's childbearing years, personal relationships and family responsibilities. So, what are we doing to improve science through empowering more women to play bigger roles? In the spirit of this year’s theme for International Women’s Day, what are we doing to Make it happen? 


First, in IFS, we have for many years supported excellent young women in the 'difficult' early stages of their research careers, when (without a track record) it is hard to find research funding. Many have gone on to become highly distinguished scientists. Two examples come immediately to mind:

Prof Lourdes Cruz, an IFS grantee from the Philippines in 1977, 1979, 1981 and 1982 who has specialised on the toxins, medical and biochemical applications of Conus species, who later became a Scientific Advisor in the field of Natural Products. For her work, she was named National Scientist of the Philippines in 2006, and received a L'Oral-UNESCO For Women in Science Award in 2010 becoming the first Filipino and the first South-East Asian scientist to do so, and

Prof Sara Feresu, an IFS grantee from Zimbabwe in 1985, 1987 and 1990 and an internationally renowned specialist in Leptospirosis in cattle, who later became a Scientific Advisor in the field of Animal Production for IFS and a trustee from 2003-2010.

However, given that IFS grantees must be post-graduate degree holders we still find that more men apply for our support than women.

So secondly, following extensive consultation on our recent 10-year strategy, we took the controversial decision to introduce greater flexibility in eligibility requirements for women applying for research grants, maintaining gender balanced quality criteria but disaggregating age eligibility by 5 years in favour of female applicants.

Third, we looked at the dearth of role models, especially in Africa, who might encourage young women to pursue secondary and tertiary science-focused education. We joined a likeminded consortium including CTA, the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), and other partners in jointly organising Africa-wide Science Competitions targeting women and young professionals in science to showcase their research and celebrate their successes. The 3rd Africa-wide Science Competitions held in 2012/13 brought to light 10 extraordinary African scientists – seven women and three men, seven of whom were under 40 years old. (See p48-49 of the IFS Annual Report 2013: http://issuu.com/ifs2013/docs/ifs_annualreport_issuu/0).

They are inspiring individuals with a clear vision of how they will contribute to agricultural development and economic transformation in Africa. The winners have travelled far and worked hard to achieve their early-career goals – some have come from small farms, through primary and secondary schools, to universities – and now have begun to reap the rewards of their efforts. For the women scientists, in particular, the journey has at times been arduous, breaking stereotypes of women's capacity to engage in science and balancing their career aspirations with their family commitments. (See more about their achievements and their life stories at: http://knowledge.cta.int/Dossiers/CTA-and-S-T/Selected-publications/Life-stories-of-African-women-and-young-professionals-in-science).

On International Women's day we celebrate the role of women everywhere and especially in the global science endeavour, and pledge to continue to try to ...make it happen!


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