Women in science: a sparkling combination

Duration:10 mins

Tags: Culture


Date:February 11th, 2023


Women in science: a sparkling combination

To mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Senior Research Scientist Geneviève Robin outlines the crucial role that women and girls play in science and artificial intelligence.

Less than 30% of the world’s scientists are women. This is especially true of women in academic science, where the gender gap increases with responsibility level: 30% at graduate level, 25% at PhD level, 11% at top academic responsibilities, and 3% of Nobel prizes. Contrary to common belief, these numbers are changing extremely slowly. At the current pace, we will not reach gender equality before the end of the century: if my granddaughter pursues a scientific career, the odds are that she will experience gender-based discrimination.

As a researcher in mathematics, I personally experienced this ‘leaky pipeline’ effect. I decided to leave academic research and join Owkin after being told by an official grant jury that my project would be more convincing if it were led by my white, male, over 50 years old colleague rather than me, the woman under 30 who actually wrote it. In my experience, most women in academic jobs still have to fight simply to have appropriate working conditions. 

Male-skewed data sets and teams can lead to gender biased algorithms and treatments

Besides being bad for society, underrepresentation of women is also bad for the quality of science. This is especially true in healthcare and AI, where male-skewed data sets and teams can lead to gender biased algorithms and treatments. A striking example of such scientific bias is the prescription of aspirin to reduce the risk of cardiac arrest based on all-male clinical trials, while the treatment was not appropriate for women. Working in AI, I personally reviewed all-male articles advertising machine learning algorithms which performed significantly worse on female samples than male samples, without even commenting on the blatant gender bias of their method.

As an innovative company working at the intersection of AI and healthcare, we have to act for gender equality in science, because the gender gap will not close by itself. Here are three concrete ways through which Owkin is helping to create better working conditions for all, inspire brighter futures for girls, and improve the quality of science.

First, we – scientists of all genders – can share our experience with young audiences, especially with girls, in order to debunk stereotypes and provide role models. Representation matters, and one of the fantastic aspects of being at Owkin is working alongside brilliant women who are leading cutting-edge scientific work, such as Meriem Sefta, our Chief Diagnostics Officer, and Elodie Pronier, our Head of Biomedical Discovery. To promote female role models further, Owkin is involved with several associations, including Femmes et Mathématiques, who regularly organize events where scientists can interact with high-school girls through speed-meetings or conferences. Animath also does a huge amount of work to reach young audiences and familiarize them with mathematics in a playful way.

Understand the daily obstacles that prevent women from thriving at work

Second, we can improve working conditions for all, and reduce what I call “daily inequalities” encountered by women in professional life, which range from access to restrooms and sanitary bins, adequate implementation of maternity leave, and promotion of a feminist culture. To improve in this direction, it is important to conduct internal employee surveys to understand the daily obstacles that prevent women from thriving at work. Another important action is to improve inclusiveness by organizing systematic training of managers and recruiters on gender equality – but also ethnicity, social origin and health, as all these issues are intertwined through intersectionality – based discrimination and harassment. A comprehensive parental leave policy that benefits men and women equally – such as the one that we at Owkin benefit from – demonstrates that both genders have equal responsibilities and opportunities for raising their children.

Third, we must be aware that gender bias does not stop when women enter scientific jobs, but goes on at every level of the professional hierarchy: women are often passed over for promotions, have shorter careers, and are underrepresented in top-level jobs (see, e.g., the UN statistics). We have to work harder to promote gender parity at senior levels. I think the first step is to publish detailed, transparent reports on the internal state of parity at every level of the hierarchy, including at the top executive level, in order to better understand where we are standing. At Owkin, part of our company mission is to ensure a better distribution of gender across the company and for it to trickle down to all levels. Another important action would be to ensure, for example through signing a charter for instance, that all committees involved in recruitment, promotion or scientific decision making, have a minimum proportion of women that matches the overall proportion in the company. As a reference, this last point was already put in action by academic scientific juries at CNRS, INRIA, and most public universities.

There are many ideas out there, we just have to act on them!

To finish on an optimistic note, even if the journey towards gender equality in science is far from over, as a scientific community, we can be proud of the existing initiatives that have already helped uncover the actual state of the gender gap in science, and to better understand what we can do about it. As a reference, the Gender Gap in Science project, which ran between 2017 and 2019, did a thorough international survey of the topic across many disciplines and viewpoints such as the cost of the gender gap and a database of good practice, which resulted in a book with precise statistics and recommendations for scientific institutions. There are many ideas out there, we just have to act on them!

If you want to join a team devoted to pursuing cutting-edge scientific discoveries, we have a range of openings for brilliant people of all backgrounds.