“We need to encourage young women in science to take the plunge!”
On October 1st, PSL honored its young doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows who are among this year’s winners of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Rising Talents France awards. The prizes are part of an international commitment to ensure that women scientists are more fully represented at every level of their profession and in every scientific discipline. We talked with Fabienne Casoli, President of the Observatoire de Paris–PSL; Anne Christophe, Associate Director, Sciences, ENS–PSL; Geneviève Almouzni, CNRS Research Director at the Institut Curie; and Annie Colin, Associate Director, Institut Pierre-Gilles de Gennes – four role models for young female researchers – to hear their observations and ideas about changing the status of women in science.
- Fabienne Casoli, President, Observatoire de Paris–PSL
- Anne Christophe, Associate Director, Sciences, ENS–PSL
- Geneviève Almouzni, CNRS Research Director, Team Leader and Honorary Director of the Research Center of the Institut Curie, member of the Scientific Council of the European Research Council (ERC), co-chair of the E.U.’s LifeTime FET Flagship
- Annie Colin, Associate Director, Institut Pierre-Gilles de Gennes; Professor, ESPCI ParisTech–PSL,; director of the Innovative Materials for Energy team, CBI Laboratory, ESPCI ParisTech–PSL and CNRS
PSL : This year, 10 young female doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows working in PSL laboratories captured a L’Oréal-UNESCO Fellowship For Women in Science. They’ll be receiving additional training to supplement their scientific studies to help them break the “glass ceiling.” Could you tell us briefly what that initiative means to you? For example, do you encourage young women scientists in your laboratories to apply?
The program promotes networks for scientific women; they are a significant support to break the glass ceiling.
Fabienne Casoli: The For Women in Science program is extremely important in terms of the increased visibility for the winners, the model it provides to young women researchers and the additional training it offers. I have definitely forwarded the call for applications to laboratories and I’ve strongly encouraged them to submit candidates, and I plan to continue doing that in the future.
Anne Christophe: These prizes really are an excellent initiative, and I also encourage young scientists at ENS–PSL to submit their applications. There are plenty of reasons to apply: winning a fellowship is an asset on their résumé; the training is top-notch and also gives the participants an opportunity to build a support network. Plus, the prizewinners make a commitment to visit high schools to tell girls about careers in science, so they can dispel the stereotype that says women supposedly don’t have the skills to study science. My only regret is that the scientific categories are very rigid – too rigid in some cases – and don’t cover every scientific discipline. I get the impression that discourages some candidates from applying, which would be a shame.
Geneviève Almouzni: I share your enthusiasm for this wonderful initiative, which spotlights the career path of talented young women through a competition that’s free of gender-related bias. So I’m delighted at the success of these 10 young doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows from PSL laboratories. As you mentioned, these fellowships open the door to a host of opportunities that go far beyond the financial grant. The additional training is designed to help the winners gain confidence, take leadership roles and be more assertive, and that’s fairly unique. I seem to recall that there was a workshop with horses that really forced me to develop some leadership.
Annie Colin: I also encourage the PhD students in my group to apply for the fellowships. By and large, I’ve often noticed that we had to encourage young women to apply, whereas the young men I’ve supervized love competing for the various dissertation prizes or in events like My Thesis in 180 Seconds. Any training on how to manage networking in the job market is always a positive thing. In general, understanding the customs and inner workings of a very male-oriented community can only help you in your professional career.
PSL: Over the past two decades, there’s been growing awareness of the need for policies to promote equal opportunity for men and women in scientific careers. As school presidents, lab directors, PhD supervisors, how do you view the past 20 years? Do you think those policies have borne fruit?
The European Research Council has established bias awareness training for the applicant selection process. And we’re seeing some progress. But we’d still like to see more women apply!
Geneviève Almouzni: Promoting equal opportunity and diversity are definitely a must – they’re truly valuable for science and education. The past twenty years have brought progress in many ways, but it takes time for things to become established and solidify over time. I think efforts to root out unconscious bias are especially important. Whether you’re a man or a woman, your history and your experience will influence your awareness. It’s absolutely necessary that we collectively take the time to question our biases. The European Research Council (ERC), for example, has established bias awareness training for the applicant selection process. And we’re seeing some progress. But we’d still like to see more women apply! We need to encourage them to take the plunge. Several E.U. institutions (such as the EU-Life member institutes) have created organizations for promoting gender and ethnic diversity in research and fostering a work-life balance. Those organizations assist young researchers with their career plans and hold awareness-raising sessions with older researchers to help them examine their biases and find ways to overcome them. That’s very important for ensuring we improve the selection process. In addition, our recent experience with Covid-19 has brought additional problems to light. I was especially intrigued by a recent workshop organized by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) on that subject. What we heard was that in many cases, despite enormous progress, the “mental workload” when it comes to the family and organizing a household isn’t always properly shared. As a team leader, I feel it’s important to recruit a diverse team at every stage of the process.
If you look at the figures from the CNRS on the percentage of women by career level, there hasn’t been much progress in 20 years
Anne Christophe: It’s undeniably true that the scientific community has become more aware of the existence of gender bias over the past few years. A number of scientific articles have shown convincingly that bias exists, both in male and female scientists. Acquiring that awareness is a necessary first step, and I would like to be more confident that that realization is already having a concrete impact, but unfortunately I’m not entirely convinced. For example, if you look at the figures from the CNRS on the percentage of women by career level, there hasn’t been much progress in 20 years – even though the CNRS set up its Mission for the Place of Women back in the early 2000s.
Fabienne Casoli: In my field of astrophysics, despite greater awareness and our education and outreach efforts, we can’t really say that the situation for women has improved. The number of female laboratory directors has fallen somewhat over the past 20 years, and the percentage of women researchers and research professors has generally held steady or even dropped, despite our efforts to raise awareness among hiring committees. The pool of young women going into scientific research is not increasing – there’s nothing surprising about that. At each stage of the recruitment process, which is getting longer and more selective, the number of women declines. We need to have the power to take action at every level: in primary and secondary schools, to get more girls interested in studying science, whether they eventually become an engineer or a researcher, and then across higher education. We’ll need to closely monitor the impact of France’s baccalauréat reforms on the number of students, and especially young girls, choosing to study science..
The equal opportunity policy that’s been adopted in university research laboratories has been fairly ineffective or, in any case, much less effective than in the world of industrial research..
Annie Colin: I totally agree: the status of women in research, and particularly scientific research, is primarily a matter of educational options. Contrary to what we might have expected, the elimination of teacher training institutes (the écoles normales supérieures) specifically for girls, such as Sèvres and Fontenay aux Roses, has had an adverse impact on the number of women in research. In my experience, the equal opportunity policy that’s been adopted in university research laboratories has been fairly ineffective or, in any case, much less effective than in the world of industrial research. I spent 10 years in a joint research unit (unité mixte de recherche) at Solvay, and I often envied my colleagues who worked for the industrial sector. To give an example, parental leave in academia really brings your career to a halt. It virtually always means you lose the bonus for doctoral supervision and research for at least four years. To receive that bonus, you have to have consistent results, because your average evaluation will include that year of leave, which is often blank, in the total for all the years evaluated. Similarly, if you go on leave for too long, that has major consequences for your work as a team leader, which in academic research operates on a very personal level. Comparatively speaking, a situation like that has less of an impact in the industrial world, and it won’t ever prevent you from getting a promotion. I believe we still have a lot to do in that area in the academic world. It’s also striking to me that in my experience, the difference is much greater in Paris than in the rest of France. One silver lining is that I don’t think France is lagging far behind other countries. Last year I spent four months as a Margaret Burbidge Visiting Professor at the University of California San Diego, an honor that’s reserved for women. At the department lectures, there were five women on average, including two Burbidge professors, in an audience of 100 people.
PSL: Recent studies have shown that while women researchers in the natural sciences have a greater voice (based on an increase in the number of publications), they’re still in the minority when it comes to obtaining grants, patents or responsibility for large-scale collaborative projects1. Should we be changing the way we train young researchers, both male and female, to reflect that? And what do you think are the priority steps we should take?
If poets are always right, then as Louis Aragon says, “The future of men is women,” but biology tells us you can’t have women without men and you can’t have men without women
Geneviève Almouzni: That’s an important point, and earlier I mentioned the actions taken by the ERC for its selection process. Those actions were guided by the findings of a working group that was tasked with establishing a detailed plan for the period 2014-2020. That’s genuine progress, and we need to continue that! Those policies could be systematically extended to every selection committee. Another potential step forward would be adopting measures that allow for extensions to the post-dissertation deadlines for applying for funding, as the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) has done. Shared parental leave that’s more effectively divided between the two parents is a step forward as well. Nonetheless, it’s true that we need to encourage more young women to make the leap. I do agree that we need to think more about the educational process itself. We need to provide an education that leverages each student’s individual strengths, whether they’re male or female, but that also pushes women to be bolder, to talk about their work and showcase their work on their CV. All of that will have an impact on their citation rate, for example. Additional training, of the kind that L’Oréal offers, or support in the form of coaching or mentoring – we need to build on those programs and listen to the younger generations to learn more about their expectations. But we need to keep in mind that practical, day-to-day measures will undoubtedly have the biggest impact. Lastly, setting an example is important! And while the Nobel Prizes awarded to Marie Curie and her daughter Irène continue to resonate with young women, the news that Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is bound to be a real boost as well!
In conclusion, it’s very simple: if poets are always right, then as Louis Aragon says, “The future of men is women,” but biology tells us you can’t have women without men and you can’t have men without women.
Fabienne Casoli: I share your observation – we need to encourage women. Even taking their numbers into account, the percentage of women who offer to lead collaborative projects or assume responsibility for a research proposal, such as at the ERC, is still very small. There are undoubtedly several reasons for that, one being self-censorship; plus, as you say, there’s no longer any denying the fact that for most women, household tasks are not shared equitably and that weighs on their research activities. From that perspective, society is making very slow progress, but we’re seeing the emergence of a generation of young men who are demanding a better balance between family and professional life. Providing support and training to young researchers, both male and female, is certainly one avenue to pursue. We also need to think about ideas such as waivers from teaching to allow researchers to prepare proposals. Gender parity is now a requirement for most hiring committees, project selection committees and governing boards. It would be interesting to assess the impact of that parity: on one hand it means a heavier workload for women in disciplines that are predominantly male, but it also generates a higher level of awareness, which we need.
Why shouldn’t we also consider extending the deadline for young researchers to apply to the French National Research Agency based on the number of children they care for – an additional six months per child, for example?
Annie Colin: To echo what you’ve said and add to the ideas already mentioned, it would be significant to have scientific evaluations clearly incorporate the idea of years worked, so that maternity leave or parental leave periods aren’t factored into the evaluation. And why shouldn’t we also consider extending the deadline for young researchers to apply to the French National Research Agency based on the number of children they care for – an additional six months per child, for example? Likewise, I think it’s essential that we have criteria in place for tenure track proceedings, which are undoubtedly going to be an issue in the years to come. More broadly, I’m convinced that we need to have an aggressive recruitment policy and require research institutes to hire men and women at least in proportion to the percentage of applications they receive from each group. We could also require that major collaborative projects be led by two people, one male and one female. PSL’s Academic Council recently broached that idea.