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For Women In Science: promoting scientific role models

Through the For Women In Science (FWIS) programme, L‘Oréal Foundation hopes to offer a new generation of female role models to the scientists of the future. David Macdonald, Philanthropy Director for Women in Science at the Foundation explains how to raise the profile of successful women scientists.

Why does science need women more than ever?

 “Women make up just 30% of researchers”

“We often hear that the world of science does not have enough women. But it’s a mistake to imagine that this is a gender issue”, David points out. He quotes Isabel Marey-Semper, General Manager of the L’Oréal Foundation: “Science is an integral part of the future and relies on the talents of gifted people, no matter what their gender. The L’Oréal-UNESCO FWIS programme seeks to harness the intelligence, creativity and passion of women – who make up one-half of the world’s population after all – and put this into research across all disciplines”.

The facts are incontestable. According to UNESCO, while women make up about one-half of the student body in scientific disciplines[1], they account for just 28% of those who go beyond the master’s level to undertake a PhD or post-doc, which explains why less than 3% of Nobel Prizes in the sciences have been awarded to women. As David says, the glass ceiling is very much in place.

Why is this? David says that “public opinion is not aware just how deeply rooted the prejudices are”. In a mixed gender European panel surveyed by the Foundation in partnership with Opinion Way, 67% of respondents felt that women do not have the requisite capacities to hold top-level scientific positions, saying that women lack perseverance, a rational mindset, practicality, rigour, scientific ability and analytical ability. The panel heavily underestimated the under-representation of women: “respondents believed that women held 28% of the highest scientific academic positions in the European Union, whereas the actual percentage is just 11%”. Even so, respondents want to see the situation change more swiftly.

“It is time to move the goalposts”: objectives of the L’Oréal Foundation

In light of the survey findings and to take the fight to these prejudices, the L’Oréal Foundation has launched a digital campaign aimed at sharing the results and getting people engaged in taking on the ingrained stereotypes. Yet, with the FWIS programme, the Foundation wants to go further and tackle the glass ceiling and a related issue – the lack of female role models in science.

FWIS: showcasing female scientific excellence

Help a new generation of role models to emerge

To increase the number of women at the top scientific levels, we need to raise the profile of those who are already there. “When we talk about women in science, Marie Curie is often the only name that comes up. We want to provide a new generation of role models.”

David’s list of candidates is long. Former FWIS laureates alone include one Nobel, Elizabeth Blackburn, who chairs this year’s FWIS jury, and who discovered “telomerase”, an enzyme that plays a key role in normal cell function, as well as in cell aging and most cancers.

It is urgent to ensure that these extraordinary women are better known. “We want give them greater media coverage so that they can tell their stories and share their findings, not just inside the scientific community, but also with the wider public, on the radio, TV and social media.”

A global programme targeting excellence

Candidates are nominated by international experts and picked based on the scientific excellence of their work. A 12-person jury then awards one prize per continent. “It is important to have five prizes to reflect the fact that research environments and challenges vary hugely from one continent to another.”

To develop the programme worldwide the L’Oréal Foundation teamed up with UNESCO which provides the programme with scientific legitimacy as well as an extensive international network. Thanks to this partnership, our programme now reaches 120 countries.” Jean-Paul Agon, L’Oréal Chairman and CEO and L’Oréal Foundation’s President, and Irin Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, have both thrown their weight behind the programme, which works with 45 of the world’s top scientific institutions. Prizes are presented at a ceremony at the Sorbonne, with alternating awards for life sciences and physical sciences. In 2016, life sciences will be in the spotlight at the ceremony held on the evening of 24 March.

2016 awards: taking on social challenges and getting the public on board

The 2016 awards spotlight science’s social utility

When asked about the 2016 winners, David is full of praise for the “incredible line-up”. The 2016 laureates are outstanding group of scientists whose work follows a common thread in terms of the social impact of their research.

One of the most important discoveries to receive an award is surely the one shared by the winners for North America and Europe, namely Emmanuelle Charpentier of France and the USA’s Jennifer Doudna. “They have found a molecular mechanism that can be used to rewrite the genome.” Likened to a set of DNA “scissors”, their discovery opens up possibilities for new treatments of genetic diseases.

Getting the public on board

“We want to go further every year in publicising our winners using all the media and digital resources at our disposal.” A mobile satellite vehicle will be used to conduct interviews and broadcast internationally daily highlights from the programme through a partnership with CNN. At the same time, a digital campaign is going to spread the word about the programme and the role of women in science to the public at large.”

The Foundation wishes to provide clear evidence of the desire for change among the general public ahead of the ninth annual Conference on Gender Equality in Science to be held this September in Paris.

[1] UNESCO statistics, July 2015



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