Women Scientists Face Down Men in Developing World

Women Scientists Face Down Men in Developing World

THERE’S A CERTAIN VIEW of what a scientist “should” look like, whether in the U.S. or Indonesia or Uganda ­– and across the board, that image isn’t of a woman.

“It is scary for the women to go into science or medicine, because there’s a lot of negativity when you make these decisions,” says Dr. Etheldreda Nakimuli-Mpungu, a psychiatric epidemiologist in Kampala, Uganda. “Growing up, we were told, ‘You will never get married; no one will ever want to have a relationship with you.'”

Nakimuli-Mpungu was one of five women biologists to be presented with Elsevier Foundation Awards on Thursday in the nation’s capital. Each is early in her career, hailing from a developing nation, and making big strides toward achieving major health and economic benefits in her community.

“These are exemplary researchers, and their work has enormous potential to improve people’s health and support stronger communities,” said Romain Murenzi, executive director of The World Academy of Sciences, which gave the awards with the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World.

Christine Grant, second from left, author of “Success Strategies for Women in STEM,” poses with award winners Ghanya Naji Mohammed Al-Naqeb, Sri Fatmawati, Etheldreda Nakimuli-Mpungu, Sushila Maharjan and Magaly Blas.COURTESY ALISON BERT/ELSEVIER FOUNDATION

Schools and job recruiters in the U.S. have long struggled to attract and retain women – and especially women of color – in the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. There are a number of factors – making STEM education more accessible, making classes more engaging – but societal pressures both subtle and explicit have remained a constant, reinforcing the image that scientists, engineers, tech wizards and mathematicians are men, STEM experts say.

Women consistently lag behind men in terms of the STEM degrees they earn, exam scores and general interest, the 2015 U.S. News/Raytheon STEM Index found. They are consistently discriminated against in math hiring, a 2014 study determined, and an analysis last year discovered the country’s STEM workforce is no more diverse than it was 14 years ago.

Scientists abroad often face an even tougher struggle. In Indonesia, “in the higher levels, it’s very rare to find women” in any of the STEM fields, says Sri Fatmawati, an assistant professor and lecturer in chemistry at the Institut Teknologi Sepuluh Nopember in Surabaya, Indonesia.

In Nepal, “people think science is just investment – no earning, no income. They think it’s a waste of money and time,” says Sushila Maharjan, who helped launch the Research Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology in Kathmandu.

For Nakimuli-Mpungu, who is a senior lecturer at Makerere University College of Health Sciences in Kampala, supposed colleagues accused her of relying on her husband’s research (he’s also an epidemiologist), and still others eventually poached her staff. Family relatives, she says, was less than sympathetic.

“You don’t get any support: ‘You brought it on yourself,'” she recalls. “When you’re a woman doing high-tech science, there is the doubt. People don’t believe you’re doing the work.”

And there are other issues, too: Until Maharjan opened her research institute, Nepal largely lacked the labs for high-level biotechnology research. In Yemen, periodic terrorist attacks and the civil war that erupted in 2015 have destroyed labs and left others without electricity.

“The situation in Yemen is quite bad,” says Ghanya Naji Mohammed Al-Naqeb, an assistant professor who’s experimented with different plants to treat diseases and, most recently, obesity. “When people get a Ph.D. and come back to Yemen, they have a big problem because we don’t have the facilities.”

In winning the award, each researcher will receive $5,000, in addition to the trip this week to the nation’s capital for the ceremony. Magaly Blas, an associate professor of public health at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Lima, Peru, plans to use the money to expand her program using smart phones to track sexually transmitted diseases and high-risk pregnancies in communities in the Amazon.

Nakimuli-Mpungu, who studies depression and mental health issues in patients with HIV, hopes to train other researchers – both men and women – to help her with mental health research. “I really want to interest young people in mental health. I’m not comfortable knowing what I know by myself,” she says.

And there are other, broader goals, too: The scientists hope not only to further their own research, but also mentor and help other women break into and advance in the STEM fields.

“It’s not about duty, it’s about sharing, because sharing is loving. I have many students, female students, and maybe this can become an inspiration for them,” says Fatmawati, of Indonesia’s Institut Teknology Sepuluh Nopember. “Sowing the seed of science.”

Originally published on: www.usnews.com

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