Last April, Eszti Varga was one of 2,400 young women to converge on 120 universities and companies across Hungary as part of Girls’ Day, a campaign aimed at drawing high-school students into science and technology careers.
At the event, Varga, an 18-year-old at Szerb Antal High School in Budapest, experimented with virtual- and augmented-reality headsets and heard a speech by a Hungarian woman who had earned her first patent as a teenager. Although she was already sure she wanted to pursue a career in engineering, Varga felt empowered seeing other girls realize that they could have jobs in technology fields.
Sponsored by the Association of Hungarian Women in Science (NaTE), the campaign has attracted some 10,000 participants across the seven years that it has run.
For these and other efforts, NaTE has won the inaugural Nature Research Innovating Science Award, presented on 30 October in London. A companion Prize, the Inspiring Science Award, was presented to Mirjana Pović, an astrophysicist at the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute in Addis Ababa. NaTE and Pović were selected from almost 300 applications in a contest meant to showcase the work of researchers and organizations that inspire women and girls in STEM. The award programme is a joint initiative between Nature Research and The Estée Lauder Companies, headquartered in New York City.
“I was simply thrilled to see so many smart, successful scientists leading the charge in research, and so many strong advocates supporting girls and women in STEM across the globe,” says Nadine Pernodet, a vice-president at The Estée Lauder Companies.
Today, fewer than 30% of the world’s researchers are women, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Women face barriers to participating in science across the world. For example, in August, a Japanese university admitted to altering the test scores of medical-school applicants to reduce the number of women accepted on to the course. In September, a physicist at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics lab near Geneva, gave a talk asserting that “physics was built by men” and that men, not women, face discrimination (the scientist has since been suspended by the lab). And a study published in PLoS Biology suggests that women will not reach parity on author lists until 2100 or later (L. Holman et al. PLoS Biol. 16, e2004956; 2018).
NaTE’s Girls’ Day programme, among other initiatives, is helping to knock down those barriers. For example, GE Digital in Budapest hosted a coding workshop in which students got to program robots, says Laura Paál, a senior director at the company. The girls walked away excited about robots, software and the company. “They also see that we love our jobs,” says Paál. “This area is not only for men.”
By women for women
NaTE was founded in 2008 by ten women to support female scientists and graduate students, says Fanni Szigeti, the organization’s general manager. Since then, the association has expanded to include members of any gender in both the natural and social sciences, and to encourage younger students. But there’s still plenty to do before women reach parity, she says.
Szigeti points to gender stereotypes, lack of female role models, pay-equity gaps and lower promotion rates as reasons that are keeping girls and women from going into or progressing in STEM. Women also often launch their careers and start families simultaneously. In Hungary, Szigeti says, there are few systems in place to promote STEM for women.
Varga, for example, has faced discouragement about her career plans. “I have been told very interesting things, like how as a female, my brain could never be good enough for maths or physics,” she says. She’s undeterred, however, and NaTE programmes help her to connect with other young women who share her interests.
There’s evidence that NaTE is making inroads. When the association began its Girls’ Day programme, just 7% of those enrolling in electrical engineering and informatics at the prestigious Budapest University of Technology and Engineering were women. Today, the number has doubled to 14%. “It can partly be attributed to the fact that the Technology University was among the first to join the Girls’ Day series of events,” says Szigeti.
NaTE has also expanded its programme beyond that one day. It organizes year-round Saturday meetings in which girls learn skills such as giving scientific presentations. It arranges for girls to shadow female researchers or tech developers at work. And it hosts workshops so that secondary-school teachers can learn about the science and technology job market and pass that information on to their students. NaTE aims to get 10% of Hungary’s high-school girls involved in its programmes by 2020.
NaTE also supports female researchers through its Women in Science Excellence Award. Launched in 2013 in conjunction with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the award honours young scientists who excel in their fields.
Now, NaTE is expanding its reach internationally. In 2015, it helped organizations in Slovakia and the Czech Republic to launch their own Girls’ Day programmes. It’s also representing Hungary in the European Union’s Evaluation Framework for Promoting Gender Equality in Research & Innovation project. That consortium will provide indicators to measure gender inequality and compare those with the quality of outputs in research, technology, development and innovation.
“NaTE’s combination of programmes provides a supportive ecosystem for girls in STEM that is making a real difference today, and is poised to increase its impact in the future,” says Mariette DiChristina, chief judge for the Innovating Science award and executive vice-president at Nature Research.
DiChristina, who is also editor-in-chief at Scientific American, says she hopes that by highlighting groups such as NaTE, the awards will inspire others to commit time to gender-diversity efforts.
Winners of both the Innovating Science and Inspiring Science awards will receive up to US$10,000 for projects related to women in science. The Estée Lauder Companies and Nature Research have committed to running these awards for at least two more years.
Nature 563, 147-148 (2018)