Seeking gender equality in science

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Seeking gender equality in science

Gender Summit 6 Asia-Pacific 2015 was held in Seoul from Aug. 26 to 28. Launched in Europe in 2011 under the objective of promoting quality research and innovation through gender equality, the summits have been staged in different continents this year - Africa in April, Asia-Pacific this month and Europe in November. The sixth meeting in Seoul brought 600 participants from over 40 countries.

One of the top agenda items was the Gendered Innovations project designed to raise gender awareness in science, health, medicine and engineering school curricula, research and innovation.

The aim is to harness the power of gender analysis to discover new things, raise quality in research and engineering projects, generate new business models through innovations with more gender equality and research discoveries that can be beneficial to both men and women.

The work of Londa Schiebinger, professor of Stanford University which initiated the Gendered Innovations project, is already known. Through empirical studies, she attested that health risks from new drugs are greater for women than men because lab experiments used mostly male cells and tissues and male animals.

A study led by Boris Kingma, a biophysicist at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, claimed that office air-conditioning and heating standards are biased and uncomfortable for female workers because they were originally based on a resting metabolic rate of a 40-year-old man weighing 70 kilograms (154 pounds).

Women’s metabolic rates are significantly lower than men’s, and they prefer temperatures that are about 3 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than men. So adjusting thermostats can make employees not only more comfortable at work, but can also save managers money by lowering heating and cooling costs, as well as lowering carbon consumption.

The study raised awareness that engineering standards, including temperature norms, need to be updated because incorporating gender analysis can save lives, money and energy.

While I was listening to the presentation, I remembered my own experience of gender inequality. When I received the highest honor in the state award for science and technology contribution in April, I discovered my shoulder medal and band were smaller than those of the male winner who received the same honor.

I inquired about the reason and discovered that the female ones were made smaller in the 1960s to better fit the female physique. The honor resulted in looking like the lower grade. Having heard my disgruntlement, the state authority said it will change the rules.

The Gendered Innovation campaign raises the fundamental question of why women remain a minority in the fields of science and technology and how such a phenomenon can affect the research field and proliferation of science studies.

Women were shunned in the science world until the mid-2000s. The French Academy of Sciences, for instance, turned down the membership application of two-time Noble Prize winner Marie Curie in 1911. Curie already shared a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 for her collaborative work with her husband for isolating radium. She was already the first woman to earn a professorship in general physics at the Faculty of Science at the Sorbonne. But the Academy concluded she was not a scientist and the open seat instead went to devout Catholic physics professor Edouard Branly.

The snub made Curie pay more attention to her work, and she won her second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, later that same year. There might have been political and religious factors, but Curie was never admitted into the French Academy of Sciences probably because she was not a man. The Academy inducted the first woman in 1962 and extended membership to women in 1979. This happened in a country that is represented by the revolutionary motto - freedom (blue), equality (white) and brotherhood (red). Rival Germany has a former physics scientist at Leipzig University, who worked at the Central Institute of Physical Chemistry at the Academy of Sciences in Berlin for 12 years, now running the country for 12 years until 2017 after she - Angela Merkel - became the country’s first woman chancellor.

The story of “Pickering’s Harem” is equally astonishing. The name refers to the staff of women who mapped out the galaxy and are otherwise known as the Harvard Computers. In 1877, Edward Pickering, then head of the Harvard Observatory, hired women to sort out astronomical data because they were cheaper and more efficient than men. Pickering first used his house maid Williamina Fleming after being frustrated with the poor work from male staff, deciding that even his maid could do better. After being impressed by the work of his maid, he hired more women and put Fleming in charge.

His fleet of “human computers” helped produce the Henry Draper Catalogue, the first catalog of more than 10,000 stars classified according to their spectrum, in 1890.

Pickering’s female staff - with pay similar to those of unskilled workers, 25 cents per hour - helped redesign the classification system of spectra that is still being used today. Among the “human computers” was Henrietta Leavitt, who was in charge of measuring and cataloging the brightness of stars. Her examination of Cepheid variable stars awed the Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1924, but the Academy discovered that the candidate for the Nobel Prize in Physics had already passed away three years prior.

Marie Curie’s daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, won the Noble Prize in Chemistry in 1935, and only two winners in the science field followed in 1947 and 1963. Since the foundation was established in 1901, female winners took up just 3 percent.

The barriers have come down in many areas, but the glass ceiling and discrimination nonetheless exist for women. They cannot be efficiently and comprehensively addressed if they are raised from the women’s side alone. Equality must be a common and universal policy in all areas. The World Assembly for Women was held in Tokyo, Japan, from Aug. 28 to 29. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been touting greater participation by women to tackle various social and economic structural problems, made the opening address. The prime minister’s wife also joined the debate. I hope I can take home new insights and answers that can help ease inequalities at home.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 29, Page 27

*The author, a former environment minister, is chair of the board at the Center for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology.

by Kim Myung-ja

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