Recognition for inspirational women in science

Awards highlight impressive efforts that reach the next generation.
Scientist watching two girls assembling electronics

Mentoring programmes are among the projects highlighted by Nature Research’s women in science awards.Credit: Getty

In April, Nature announced two annual prizes: one recognizes excellent early-career female scientists, and the other acknowledges individuals or organizations that have led grass-roots initiatives to support increased access to, or interest in, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) for girls and young women around the world. This week, we announce the candidates who have made the longlist of ten for each Nature Research award, and congratulate all of them. The impressive breadth and quality of all the entries deserve wide recognition, too.

There are many reasons for which women are discouraged from entering STEM professions or from staying in them. They include unequal access to education; conscious and unconscious discrimination in promotion, funding, peer review, citation and more; unequal pay; and, often, a disproportionate burden of domestic responsibilities. All of that can help to explain why women still make up only around 30% of professional researchers. It is encouraging to see the many entries from women who are successful researchers and who are also determined to help others and to inspire the next generation. One route towards equality in science is to offer positive role models to young people.

Some of the most impressive prize entrants focus on countries and locations in the global south, working with particularly impoverished and underprivileged communities. This often comes with additional challenges — sometimes, just reaching remote locations to mentor girls and encourage them to pursue science requires serious commitment. For example, one project, Cielo y Tierra, organizes outreach efforts in rural South America and Africa.

Obviously, not all of the girls and young women reached in this way will end up pursuing science in their studies or careers. But awakening their curiosity and nurturing their ambitions is still worthwhile.

It turns out that mentorship and support over long distances can be highly effective. One scheme has successfully matched researchers with young girls from low-income communities as penfriends. Working with US schools and with scientists around the world, ‘Letters to a Pre-Scientist’ fosters a love for science, offers support and provides personal experiences. Scientists are encouraged to write at least once every few months, and to give instances of how science has, for example, taught them to persevere or to learn from failure. It’s a simple and effective way to demystify science by creating personal connections. Perhaps you should try it.

For students already in the university environment, gaining access to female scientists might still be difficult. Therefore, many award applicants have set up visiting female researchers’ programmes, lecture series focused on female speakers, or social events that enable networking with prominent female researchers.

In the global north, many of the efforts focus on girls and young women from minority ethnic groups. Others target communities of refugees, the children of female prison inmates and those who live in orphanages.

Many of these projects, the prize entrants told us, are driven by the entrants’ own experiences as women in science. For example, some scientists who are also mothers are working to improve childcare provision at scientific conferences. Others have overcome particularly strong local cultural constraints, under which women are rarely seen in public, let alone in science and education.

All of the entrants believe that women should have the opportunity, agency and support to become researchers. We agree. (And we appreciate that gender is neither binary nor necessarily fixed.) Together, these examples show the enormous range of ways to inspire girls and young women, and they offer lessons for all. The full longlists for the two prizes — the Inspiring Science Award and the Innovating Science Award — are available at go.nature.com/2jmri9z. The winners will be announced in October.

Nature 559, 443-444 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05801-x
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