Why the World Needs More Women in Scientific Research

07/04/2016 10:15 | Updated 07 April 2016

When picturing research scientists in their labs, most of us probably imagine a man. Why is the image of science so often immediately associated to men?

According to statistics from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), just 28% of the world's research scientists in the world today are women. That figure rises to 32% for the United States and Europe. These proportions have been largely stable since 2004 and are still a long way from parity. And while 50% of European PhD students are women, their presence in post-doctoral levels decreases, dropping even further when looking at leadership positions in research.
Indeed, women hold only 11% of the highest academic positions in scientific fields and account for just 3% of scientific Nobel Prize recipients.

One of the reasons seems to be persisting stereotypes that women and science don't mix. According to a L'Oreal Foundation For Women in Science study conducted in five European countries last year, 90% of Europeans felt women were qualified for practically everything except science. While 84% of respondents liked the idea of parity in this area, 67% felt women do not possess the required capabilities (such as logical thinking and persistence) to access high-level scientific positions.

The survey also points to a lack of recognition of women's achievements in science, with many key discoveries - the chemical composition of stars or the AIDS virus, for example - automatically attributed to men in the public conscience.

A few private companies, such as L'Oreal and AXA, are using scientific philanthropy to fight these misconceptions and promote the role of women in science. At the AXA Research Fund, we start by walking the talk: our 14-member Scientific Board is evenly split down gender lines. This board selects the fundamental research projects we support around the world in our focus areas of human health, environmental and socio-economic risks. We also build our selection processes so as to avoid any type of discrimination, for example by allowing time for maternity leaves.

Of the 492 projects we have supported in 33 countries since 2007, 201 -- or nearly 41% -- are managed by women. That includes post-doctoral grantees, for whom we provide support during crucial years for the researchers' careers. We also support women heading world-class research programs at the leading edge of their fields, such as Luisa de Cola, whose team at the University of Strasbourg is working to improve human health through research in molecular chemistry and nanomaterials, and Katharine Cashman at Bristol University, who aims to attenuate the impact of volcanic catastrophes on local communities and flight safety.

Some of the academic institutions we support are best-in-class in terms of gender equality. The Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona, for example, has created a dedicated committee to promote equal opportunities and encourage the advancement of their women researchers. CRG is also leading the LIBRA project, which is funded by the European Union and aims to identify gender biases as well as best practices in the life sciences research community across Europe.

As with gender balance in many other areas, part of the solution for science lies in attitudes, education, role models and stereotypes. In her recent book, Nathalie Loiseau, the current Director of ENA, the prestigious School of Public Administration in France, makes a strong link between the way young girls are educated and their lack of confidence for raising their hands, speaking out loud and reaching leadership positions. Girls are expected to behave in school, learn their lessons and not ask too many questions; quite the opposite of what makes a great research scientist!

A lot has to do with the image of science. By supporting our research scientists in popularizing their research and findings through innovative and impactful formats, we want to demonstrate that science is accessible -- not to mention exciting and rewarding! -- as well as useful, if not crucial, for society.

Scientific careers are not easy, either for men or for women, but they are fulfilling. They offer opportunities for international mobility, passionate discussions and great networks in a global community, and freedom for pursuing projects in areas about which people care deeply. And for all of these things, women are clearly as qualified -- and needed -- as men.