On the importance of mums - for the sake of science

Avatar

Molecular biologist Manjit Dosanjh is CERN's Life Sciences advisor. She also contributes to a series of non-profit, non-governmental programmes for education and health, especially in developing countries.

 

I was born in a small village in India and in a culture where girls had to fit into acceptable female roles. For a girl, being groomed for marriage was considered more important than going to university. But I was lucky enough to have a mother who let me follow my dreams, helped by my scientist younger brother who showed me the way.

I grew up in a culture where men are, by definition, more knowledgeable than women. Though this type of gender bias is unevenly spread across the globe and changing over time, women may still have to face it in their professional lives. So although it has been widely discussed over the last 30 years, and, admittedly, many things have changed, the dearth of women in science is still an open topic.

According to an editorial in Nature last year, the most worrying point is that progress has now stalled. We live in a world where any scientific conference at which half of the keynote speakers are women would stand out and be newsworthy by itself. The stalling is not due to a single issue – one could easily tackle it if this were the case. If one could say "it’s only about childcare" or "lack of money". Unfortunately, the problem is complex and multifaceted.

One way of overcoming gender biases would be to start early to inspire and encourage both boys and girls to get interested in science. For this to work, it has to be a cooperative and collaborative effort of the parents, the grandparents, teachers and society. All biases and prejudices are rooted in the lack of knowledge and education. So, to start with, we should raise awareness already with young kids. This is the reason why I am involved with the International Federation of University Women (IFUW), the oldest non-governmental organisation fostering gender equality through education.

My mother was an important role model for me. Although she was not allowed to go to school because she was a girl, she learned how to read and write by herself by studying at night from her brother’s school textbooks, and she fully understood the value of education. When I wanted to go to university, she was willing to support me against traditions, but first I had to prove to her that I was good at all the typical woman’s duties! Years later, I accepted a post-doctoral position in the US, again thanks to my mum’s support. The fact that my brother was already studying at MIT, and could therefore "keep an eye" on me, also helped. This is where mums can make the difference in the lives of their daughters, by building in them a different perception of knowledge and education. Of course, fathers also have an important role to play. A study published recently by UNESCO showed that fathers are very powerful role models, and they actually influence young girls at least as much as mothers do.

There is one thing that strikes me and that is true for all women, regardless of where they are from. To be accepted, women are expected to simultaneously fulfil the roles of mother, wife, and professional. But not only this: they are expected to be perfect in all of these roles. On the other hand, a man who manages to cover some fatherly duties on top of his career still elicits admiration. What strikes me is that this is the expectation from women as well as from men.

So, where do we start? I believe that we should focus on empowering women. Science means knowledge, and knowledge is part of empowerment. Girls and women should feel that they have the same access and opportunities for scientific knowledge as boys and men do.

For me, science is about pursuing knowledge for its own sake. It opens so many doors and overcomes so many boundaries. And, as I have personally discovered coming to CERN as a biologist, it doesn’t matter which science it is: what matters is seeking knowledge. Science should be open to every single person irregardless of gender. And girls should not be afraid of pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and of finding out by themselves how things work.

To exclude women from scientific employment is to do without 50% of the world’s potential resources. We must keep fighting to improve the current situation, and overcome the progress stalling we have observed in recent years.

As a woman in science, I have been so fortunate to be able to pursue my dreams. I want to do something in return to encourage other girls and women. Let’s leave the ladder in place for those who follow to climb up; not take it away once we are here. I look forward to the time when there is no need to celebrate the role of women in science, a time when women are naturally and commonly accepted into scientific disciplines.