Women in Science: Past, Present and Future

09 February 2018 | Science communication

Maxine Lenza is World Cancer Research Fund's Press and Communications Officer. Her background is in biology and she has an MSc in Science, Technology and Society.

The idea for a globally recognised day to celebrate and promote women in science was generated during the first High-Level World Women's Health and Development Forum in February 2015 at the United Nations Headquarters. The aim is to encourage girls into science and scientific careers, and celebrate the achievements of women in science. The need for this day stems from not only a lack of women in research – less than 30% – but also the gender pay gap, which is present in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) industry.

Women in science in history

The leading men of science past are well known and celebrated; Einstein, Darwin, Galileo and Newton are all household names, with their achievements taught in schools around the world. But what about women like Lise Meitner? Lise was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938 and continue her scientific research in Sweden, going on to collaborate with Otto Hahn to discover that uranium atoms are split when bombarded with neutrons. The discovery – which eventually led to the atomic bomb – won Hahn the Nobel Prize in 1944. Meitner, on the other hand, was overlooked by the Nobel committee.

Similarly, Barbara McClintock won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1983 – over 30 years after her discovery of transposable genes had originally been overlooked due to scepticism at the time. Her work and its contribution to genetics has been compared to that of Mendel. Or even Wang Zhenyi, who was born in 1768 in China, a time when women were severely restricted by their gender and had few rights. Nevertheless she became a renowned astronomer, breaking down feudal systems of the Qing dynasty of the time.

World Cancer Research Fund International policy team

Women working with us

At World Cancer Research Fund we have a diverse science team, with women working across the broad spectrum of our cancer prevention activity, including in the most senior positions such as Kate Allen, our Executive Director, Science and Public Affairs, and Marilyn Gentry our President and CEO. For last year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science we asked some of the women at WCRF what inspired them into science and what their research is about. Watch our video here:

Women in science in the future

Encouraging more women into research roles is not just a social and moral issue. Studies show we could benefit from gender parity economically, with one report stating that gender equality could add $12 trillion to global growth by 2025. With this year’s UN forum focusing on Equality and Parity in Science for Peace and Development, no country can afford to neglect the intellectual contributions of half its population.

WCRF is proud to once again be supporting the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Join the conversation, and tell us what it’s like being a woman in science in your country @wcrfint #womeninscience

Maxine F Lenza | 09 February 2018

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