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Reflecting on women in science - can we have it all?

Thursday 11 February is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. To mark the day, MalariaGEN asked female scientists from around the world to offer advice for women in science. Today we are sharing their thoughts – across our social media channels and blog page – about how to create a positive space for women in science, and here feature the experience of Prof. Nadira Karunaweera, Professor and Chair of Parasitology at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka and Visiting Scientist at the Harvard University, USA.

View inspirational advice from other women in malaria research.

Blog 11 Feb 2021 by Professor Nadira Karunaweera

There are many great initiatives to stem the flow of women leaving science, but how has Professor Karunaweera approached retaining women in the field? “As a medic, academic, mother, grandmother and an Asian woman, I ask women scientists what it means to ‘have it all’? If we are to slow the leak of women from the pipeline to leadership, and not become overwhelmed by exhaustion and stress of multitasking, perhaps we need to consider that ‘having it all’ may mean different things to different women” she said.

Throughout history both men and women have made important contributions to science. However, women have consistently been underrepresented at the top ranks. A study of 500 scientific institutions, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell in 2019, showed that women make up more than half of undergraduate and postgraduate students, 42% of assistant professors, 23% of full professors and have fewer chances to serve on committees or speak at scientific meetings. This ‘leaky pipeline’, where women eventually leave STEM research – particularly at mid-career levels – due to social or family pressures, exhaustion, bias and, in some instances, maybe due to issues around promotion and pay, weakens science.

“As women leaders in science, along with our job responsibilities we want to fulfil our family responsibilities and also try to cope with social expectations” Nadira explained. “I have experienced heartache many times over when I had to listen to my own girls talking about my absence at their school gate unlike mothers of their classmates, and it was painful to witness my family stressed out and saddened by the overseas visits that were essentially part and parcel of my growth as a scientist. To stay on course, make progress and remain confident in our chosen path, it is focus, determination and passion for our work that is backed up by a strong support system that will help”.

As the founder President of Sri Lanka’s National Chapter for Women in Science for the Developing World (SLNC OWSD), Professor Karunaweera has worked for many years on activities that support and promote the career development of young scientists, especially women with a passion for science. In fact, her research team demonstrates the benefits that mentoring can bring to early career researchers, as a clear majority of her team members are women, all selected on merit.

“Scientists need a network to support their development, and this includes family, colleagues, mentors and role-models. This is why I empower my colleagues to gain knowledge and skills, irrespective of their gender” Nadira elaborates. “We should be sensitive to vastly diverse situations faced by our colleagues, and respect the men and women who support their success. It is what others see in us that helps to bring out the strength within ourselves. Men are not diminished in anyway by coming forward, showing kindness, fairness and offering to share responsibilities, be it at home or the workplace. That is what we need to teach our students, children and grandchildren. Those in a position of leadership or responsibility, should remember to be grateful to all those who support their ambition. Strong women need strong partners, strong families, friends and support systems that will help them grow. We can guide our children to share duties on equal terms, irrespective of gender, stopping discrimination right at home and before it permeates beyond home boundaries.”

The better the balance of diversity in science, the better the science. “Women need to find their own voice to define their ambition. This gives them the freedom to move forward on their own terms without being pressured to fit in with the socially-accepted norms or expectations” Nadira states. “As a woman, mother, doctor and scientist of Asian origin, I encourage young and brilliant minds to define clearly what they want in life. Find your own luck by working hard at it, gather a support team and pursue your goals; so when you look back in life you can say yes, you have it all, on your terms”.

View inspirational advice from other women in malaria research.