International Day of Women & Girls in Science Highlights Neuroscience is Our Future
By Nicole Fisher
Last weekend global leaders in science, technology and diplomacy gathered at the United Nations and Universities around the world for the 3rd Annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The overall platform aims to mobilize women in a wide range of science disciplines, contributing to achievement of Sustainable Development Goals and the UN’s 2030 Development Agenda. When only 30% of the world’s researchers are women, this call for educational awareness and advocacy could not be more important to global public health.
In recent years, women’s involvement – particularly in leadership roles – in the sciences have varied by region and discipline. Continually shifting by sector and generational cohorts. The U.S. in particular has seen positive overall results in the number of women in science, but not equally reflective in positions of leadership – or for women of color. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, as recently as 2016 Black women (2.9%), Latinas (3.6%) and Asian women (4.8%) collectively made up very small portions of those graduating with STEM degrees.
However, one area of science has specifically seen across-the-board progress domestically and gathered growing global attention: Neuroscience. Despite significant education and monetary hurdles for graduate degrees in neuro, and brain sciences in general, women have made vital contributions at a rapid pace over the last three decades in understanding human behavior, emotion, thinking and functioning. And it seems that organizational culture and personal drive in this field are the keys to success.
Across the National Academies, there have been multiple ongoing efforts to promote the participation of women in science. According to Dr. Lida Beninson, Program Officer with the Board of Higher Education and Workforce at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “The increasing representation of women researchers in neuroscience is a promising trend, but there is still more that can be done to promote their retention in the research environment and advancement into leadership positions in medical schools, departments, and the private sector.” With a background in higher education policy and cross-sector strategies to improve diversity in STEM fields, Dr. Beninson suggests, “continuing research for mitigating implicit biases and creating an organizational culture that addresses work-life balance are crucial for advancing women throughout all scientific disciplines.”
In organizations like the Kessler Foundation, culture is a large part of why women researchers outnumber men. In fact, almost 70% of its investigators are women. “The last two decades have seen a rise in the number of institutions that recognize women who have pursued a doctoral degree and plan to make a marked difference in their field, in conjunction with having a family,” says Dr. Nancy Chiaravalloti, Director of Neuropsychology and Neuroscience Laboratory and TBI Research at Kessler Foundation, and Professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Rutgers – New Jersey Medical School. She also contends that mentorship has evolved in recent years, with expectations of both institutions around the world and individual researchers shifting from traditional tenure track rigidity to partnerships that bring in more expertise – and thus, grant money.
However, these successes have been more difficult within government and traditional U.S. academic centers, which tend to evolve at a slower pace. “The academic world is very unforgiving when it comes to time and publications. You cannot get a research grant with a time-gap in your publication record for any reason, and you cannot get tenure while taking time off to start a family. Recognition of this issue is growing which gives me hope for the chance of having both a family life and a career,” says Dr. Windy McNerney, Research Health Scientist at the VA Palo Alto and Clinical Assistant Professor (Affiliated) at Stanford. But she goes on to say that, “Fortunately, scientists are forward-thinkers and are becoming greater advocates for influencing change from within. And while women scientists feel like they have to work harder to be respected in the field, getting a grant creates a large amount of respect, regardless of gender.”
The private sector has proven these trends with many fruitful efforts for inspiring the next generation of female neuroscience leaders, thanks to women like Dr. Beth McQuiston, neurologist and Medical Director for Abbott’s diagnostic business, who is overseeing a number of concussion and brain injury research initiatives. She insists, “Women in neuroscience are important for many reasons, such as designing how research should be conducted to be representative of males and females equally. ” And gives much credit to her firm for the successes. “I’m fortunate to work for Abbott, a global health company that’s dedicated to inspiring girls and women to pursue their dreams and reach their full potential in science. Whether it’s sparking interest in STEM through engaging, hands-on activities for young girls or collaborating in neuroscience research with brilliant female partners, we’re investing in future innovators who could create the next generation of breakthrough technologies to improve lives.”
The gatherings around the globe for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science were occasions for celebration, but they were, more importantly, opportunities to discuss further progress for young women in the field to become leaders. As Dr. Beninson states, “It would be such a setback if women in neuroscience felt compelled to leave research due to an unwelcoming work environment or a lack of clear opportunities for career advancement.” Dr. Chiaravalloti suggests that to prevent this we need to collectively focus on leadership and culture changes in global health. She again emphasized the word flexibility as a means of how we think about research, scientific advancement and gender parity. Although significant advancements have been made and successes achieved, we’re not globally – or domestically – where we want to be.