Women in Science: Challenges, Achievement, and Opportunities

Sudesh Baniya, Staff Reporter

(Photo/ Al-Fanar Media)

Mutual support and greater flexibility will increase female participation and productivity in the scientific workspace, according to a panel discussion titled “Women in Science: Victories and Challenges” held on Feb. 18.

The webinar was organized by Hamad Bin Khalifa University to discuss the unique challenges that women face in STEM and the possible measures that can be taken to overcome them.

The event featured Hiltrud Beatrix Brauch, professor and senior investigator of breast cancer susceptibility and pharmacogenomics at Dr. Margarete Fischer-Bosch-Institute of Clinical Pharmacology, Germany; Alexandra Butler, principal investigator at Qatar Biomedical Research Institute’s diabetes research center and faculty at HBKU; and Halima Bensmail, principal scientist and joint associate professor at HBKU.

Brauch started the discussion by emphasizing the power and responsibilities that come with a STEM position. “We have to be aware that this is a very competitive space with no set rules. In my generation, it was not the question of having had an opportunity to participate,” she said. “It was rather the challenge to participate once you have your degree and compete for a job.”

Bensmail drew from her personal experience to stress the importance of mutual cooperation and integration to bolster women’s participation in science.

“Originally, I was supported by a woman, my mother. Although she did not go to school, she was trying to implement her dreams in her daughters and that was amazing for me,” she said. “In addition, my father gave me the green light to go away for education even though it was challenging for me. I was very happy that I was embraced, supported, and backed in a culture dominated by males.”

Similarly, Bensmail argued that lack of female participation in scientific research can be solved by providing them with proper cultural flexibility and family support.

“Everything depends on family and culture. If they are encouraging women to participate and providing an environment to develop their own personality and achieve their dreams, women can make significant contributions,” she said.

Focusing on personal and professional responsibilities that society expects from women, panelist Butler advocated for more flexibility to accommodate women in STEM. “The biggest challenge that women in STEM face is multitasking and juggling to find the balance,” she said. “We have a career that needs a hundred percent but also parenting duties that require a hundred percent of us. I wasn’t doing anything as well as I could because I did not have enough time.”

Sharing her own experiences, Butler found it “daunting” when she was forced to use her vacation leave during her maternity period because of a lack of special maternity provisions in her workspace. “I think that is particularly an issue perhaps in the U.S. versus the Middle East, where the leave is limited. There is no family leave,” she said.

Women and girls should be encouraged to pursue their passion without obligations, Butler added.

In addition, Butler also talked about the competitiveness and subconscious bias that exists regarding women involved in science. “Scientific workplace can be a very cut-throat arena and a lot of women that are not inclined to that kind of environment and can shy away from the opportunities. It is our responsibility to make sure that we model better behavior,” she insisted. “There needs to be role models and women involved to uplift the situation. In the past, we didn’t have that because there were not many women involved in STEM but slowly, we have that now.”

Echoing Butler’s point, Brauch added that instead of supporting women, people usually question their abilities. “The subconscious bias is easily turning into a bias and is even used as an instrument against women. When it comes to the competitive part, it can be disturbing,” she added.

The panelists also put forward a number of ways to increase women’s participation and productivity in scientific research. Butler put forward four main points for everyone to follow: “Build a network, be open minded, and be adaptable. I think supporting one another is the biggest skill in the modern workspace.”

Bensmail stressed the importance of passion and focus to achieve one’s career goals.

“If you are passionate and enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll resist and open the door for yourself,” she said. “Each person will have a different experience and drive, but if you like what you’re doing, you’ll find your way.”

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