Women in science

The proportion of female scientists has increased across the world since the 1990s. However, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. We asked five women at different stages of their career paths and from various countries and backgrounds to share their experiences and insights into being a female scientist. These are their stories...

Sharon Lewin (Australia) | Tavitiya Sudjaritruk (Thailand ) | Glenda Gray (South Africa) | Kristel Paola Ramirez Valdez (Guatemala ) | Judy Auerbach (United States )

Sharon Lewin Australia

(Australia) Sharon Lewin is an infectious diseases physician and basic scientist. She is the Director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, a joint venture of the University of Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital in Melbourne, Australia. She studied medicine and did her PhD at Monash University in Melbourne and went on to do her specialist training in infectious diseases, also in Melbourne. She is currently an IAS Governing Council member.

As a young doctor in 1989, I spent a year working in Kenya in a remote hospital. There was little awareness about HIV, people didn’t want to get tested, and we were probably underestimating how many people with HIV were in the hospital. Then I came back to Australia and finished my infectious diseases training. It was a very challenging time to work in HIV because there were no treatments available.

After my experience in Africa, I realized that I really wanted to work in HIV, but wasn’t going to be working on the frontline; I wanted to combine clinical care and research and to work on a research question that would have global impact. I went on to do my PhD in the mid ’90s. I had the good fortune of going to New York, as a post-doctoral fellow, in 1997, at the beginning of ART. I worked for David Ho, who was one of the first people to raise the question that ART might cure HIV. So, I got very involved with the concept of why ART can’t cure HIV, and how we might address that. It was a very exciting time.

“The biggest challenge for me was having children at a very busy time of my career.”

That’s probably one of the biggest barriers for women scientists: to build an independent programme in research which is highly competitive and have significant family demands at the same time. I always worked with people who understood that, and if anything, encouraged me to spend more time with my family. I also had a very supportive partner and family which definitely helps! I’ve worked with fantastic female role models, particularly my PhD supervisor Susanne Crowe, and then Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, who I worked with very closely in IAS-related activities and in all of our work advancing cure research.

During the time I did my training, “formal mentorship” wasn’t something we did. I had mentors who were both men and women, and they were extremely supportive of the issues I faced as a woman in academic medicine and as a mother. Now there are lots of more formal mentoring programmes. My own institute is part of a larger initiative called “Women in Science in the Parkville Precinct (WISPP)” and there are now a range of opportunities for mentorship of young women. I've been impressed by successful initiatives such as “Athena SWAN” in the UK, which has led academic institutions to implement very practical changes to achieve gender diversity at all levels. Australia is adopting a similar programme.

Now we see a lot more organized mentorship, but I think that people finding mentors they naturally connect with is really effective. Role models are also very important beyond formal mentorship. When I trained in medicine in 1981, 50% of medical students in Australia were women, and when I came to specialize, there were very few women in senior leadership roles or even leading their own laboratories or research groups. But I have had the benefit of a generation of women ahead of me who already made great changes. I know that my experience is not shared by all women, and I’m very conscious that many women have had a very difficult time and have worked in environments where they have been actively overlooked or not given the opportunities or support they need for their careers to flourish.

“I was often the only woman in a class that was all men.”

At high school, I was interested in maths and science, and I was often the only woman in a class that was all men. I was in an environment that I didn’t find discriminatory; it was a meritocracy. It was a unique environment where people were judged on their performance and not their gender. I was always encouraged both at home and at high school, that anything was possible. This was a wonderfully empowering message and all women need to believe that.

I think that we need to give additional support to women at all stages of their careers until we have true gender equality. To do this, we need equal representation on grant panels, on senior leadership groups, when we choose speakers for any conference. I think attention to diversity and equal representation at every level is important for giving women opportunities, and also so that young women can see a clear path to a successful and rewarding career.

To girls and young women, I would say follow your passion, work hard, and find people and environments that enable and nurture you. Stand up for inequities that you will see in the workplace. You can achieve anything and you should not hold back.

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The above text is a series of excerpts from a phone interview and has been edited for length.

Tavitiya Sudjaritruk Thailand

(Thailand) Tavitiya Sudjaritruk is an IAS CIPHER Grantee and a paediatric infectious diseases specialist who teaches in the Department of Paediatrics, Faculty of Medicine, at the Chiang Mai University in Thailand. Tavitiya was born in Chiang Mai in 1981. Her current research focuses on a study of long-term non-infectious complications among HIV-infected children and adolescents.

My inspiration to work in this field came when I was a medical student. I remember witnessing a little boy who had contracted HIV from his mum, and was suffering from AIDS and many opportunistic infections. At that time, there were many children like him in our hospital. Back then, dissimilar to these days, the national ART programme had not yet been well scaled up in Thailand; that’s why the physicians could not promptly treat or rescue these children.

“More than half of my children in the paediatric ward were suffering from infectious diseases.”

After graduating, I continued with my paediatric residency programme. More than half of my children in the paediatric ward were suffering from infectious diseases. And I saw that these diseases, such as HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, measles and meningitis could be treated and prevented. That is the reason why I decided to pursue training in paediatric infectious diseases fellowship programme at the Chiang Mai University, and the doctoral programme in epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins University. Today, we have dramatically changed the face of HIV and AIDS from a disease with high mortality to a chronic disease. HIV-infected infants now can grow up to be children, adolescents and young adults, but I found that these individuals experience long-term non-infectious complications and co-morbidities, which can affect their quality of life. This is my current research focus.

Young girls and women who would like to become scientists should ask themselves what they would love to do and what that they are really interested in. When they choose this career path, they will be very, very busy, but if they work in the field they love, they will never feel tired or exhausted.

I have been very fortunate during my career path. Thailand has changed, in my opinion, into a kind of gender-equal country and I have never really encountered any social or cultural issues. However, a young scientist needs to have the drive to learn new things all the time. The experience of a young scientist in the field is short, and you should soak it up to learn as much as possible. We shouldn’t fear failure, but rather learn from it in order to improve ourselves and avoid making the same mistakes.

I have many role models. I think the very best female scientist is Professor Virat Sirisanthana. She is a paediatric infectious disease specialist, like me, and she devoted a lot of time and resources to do both clinical service and research. Her work and contribution has inspired and motivated me to be a good paediatrician and researcher. During her era, the HIV infection rate in Thailand was very high, especially among women, and the mother-to-child HIV transmission rate was very, very high. It was extremely challenging dealing with the HIV and AIDS epidemics at that time. A good mentor will not only provide young scientists with professional knowledge, guidance and feedback. They will also motivate and support opportunities to do new things and provide opportunities to work independently.

We must attract more young girls and women to become scientists. I think the government or the community should provide more opportunities for young women to learn or practice in their field of interest and provide mentorship programmes for early-career scientists.

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The above text is a series of excerpts from a phone interview and has been edited for length.

Glenda Gray South Africa

(South Africa) Glenda Gray is a paediatrician and co-founder of the Perinatal HIV Research Unit in Soweto, South Africa. She is currently the CEO and President of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC). The fifth of six children, she grew up in Boksburg, a mining town east of Johannesburg, and studied medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. She has expertise in the field of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, adolescent HIV prevention and treatment, and HIV vaccine and microbicide research.

“I became a paediatrician in the early ‘90s, and witnessed the slow, steady and eventually devastating haemorrhage of HIV at Baragwanath.”

I was looking after babies who were dying of HIV, and it was devastating.

Between 1988 and 1993, we saw HIV erupt. Suddenly, every third child in our ward was HIV infected. As a young doctor, I wanted to know how we prevent them from getting this disease from their mother. We did all the studies and interventions possible. The only thing that was working was 076, which was too expensive for South Africa. That’s why we got involved in short-course interventions. We had just ended apartheid (in 1994) and were in a new democracy, and in our eyes, anything was possible.

I was more worried about being young than being a woman. Imagine being 32 and talking to Joep Lange and David Cooper. So I used to pretend to be older because otherwise scientists wouldn’t take me seriously; I called myself 38 for many years until I was 38.

Medical science is very feminized; in South Africa, there are many more female than male scientists. I have realized that although a lot of women do well in the early to mid-stages of their careers, they fall out. They’ve found it difficult to balance the patriarchy of the country and the expectations of being a mother and a wife, and the demands of science. Women are not encouraged to pursue senior and leadership positions in science. To get to leadership requires extraordinary dedication, passion and sacrifice.

“The odds are stacked against female scientists as they go up the leadership ladder.”

There’s a lack of support, a lack of understanding, a lack of respect for what they have to do. At the SAMRC, I try to create this platform where we help the mid-career scientist going to a senior level because you need fellowships, mentorship, coaching and to strategically network.

There are not enough mentorship programmes. We need to take advantage of and develop fellowship programmes; we need to appreciate how important mentors are and formalize mentorships so that we can deliver the next generation of scientists. I try to be flexible with my scientists who are mums, and allow them to have a very flexible and progressive way of approaching their job, and also support women in networking. We have to make sure women are writing papers, chairing sessions, chairing protocols, facilitating reporting back—generally allowing room for women in leadership positions so that they can develop a stature in science.

If you’re passionate and curious, you will have many opportunities as a young woman scientist. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and also don’t forget to smell the flowers along the way. Always work hard, be passionate and care about your job. At the same time, find some time to have fun and enjoy life. There’s still so much to discover if you choose a career in HIV or TB. We haven’t solved the problems of TB and HIV, and it’s a wonderful opportunity because you could contribute to great discoveries, or you could make that discovery yourself.

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The above text is a series of excerpts from a phone interview and has been edited for length.

Kristel P. Ramirez Valdez Guatemala

(Guatemala) Kristel Paola Ramirez Valdez is a chemical biologist and an IAS Cure Global Research Academy Fellow whose doctoral research project focused on identifying and characterizing neutralizing and non-neutralizing antibodies against HIV. She was born in Guatemala in 1984 and now lives in Turkey, where she is trying to establish a laboratory to continue researching the immune response against HIV.

In the ’90s, I was a little girl but I remember TV shows talking about the “silent killer”, a mysterious disease that was spreading. Since HIV is transmitted through sex and Guatemala was and still is a very conservative society, nobody would talk about it. It was like a taboo topic. This is why it caught my attention the first time.

“If she had cancer, everyone would feel bad for her, but because she had AIDS, everybody judged her.”

Needing some practical experience, we went to the hospital to the ward with HIV patients to take blood samples. There was a young woman, not more than 30. She told me that she had AIDS and that she was dying. She was crying because she was never going to see her two little girls grow up. And she told me that people treated her with disgust. I was thinking that if she had cancer, everyone would feel bad for her, but because she had AIDS, everybody judged her. The social implications of the disease broke my heart.

In Guatemala, there are a lot of women in biological and medical sciences. Many really good female professors and mentors guided me through my undergraduate studies. The more I advanced as a scientist, the more I realized that at some point I would need to choose between my career and having a family.

“Now, as a mid-level professional, one of the biggest obstacles I face as a woman in science is that I will be the one who will be expected to give up my career.”

When I was in Guatemala, my professor, Rebeca Méndez, was my teacher in my undergrad, then my thesis reviewer gave me a lot of good advice on how to be a confident woman in science. She was very hardworking and determined. I think of her as my professional godmother.

Later, I had a big professional crush on Sharon Lewin. I went to the 20th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2014) in Melbourne, Australia, and she was so passionate, so knowledgeable in her speeches. I was inspired and wanted to be like her.

“One of the biggest obstacles I face as a woman in science is that I will be the one who will be expected to give up my career.”

Whenever I see successful women like that and I hear that they have a family, I think, “Wow, it is possible!” They are true role models for me because they are successful women, passionate, knowledgeable, and it doesn’t seem like they have to sacrifice everything. It gives me hope that it is possible to find this work-life balance.

To attract young women into science, it is important to have role models and mentors to help them realize that it is possible. As a married, working professional, I think we should improve the conditions for young women and girls by putting in place policies and infrastructure to help them to have both a family and career in science.

I would advise girls and women to work hard and be prepared to find difficulties, but also to be optimistic. They will find a lot of people who will help and guide them along the way. When it comes to working in the HIV field, there are still many things to do; there are so many opportunities in many fields of study. If you want to be part of it, just go for it.

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The above text is a series of excerpts from a phone interview and has been edited for length.

Judy Auerbach United States

(United States) Judy Auerbach is a public sociologist, independent science and policy consultant, and Professor at the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Born and raised in San Francisco, she received her PhD in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. She has taught, presented and published widely in the areas of HIV/AIDS, social science, public policy, sex and gender. She has been an IAS Member since 1994 and is now a JIAS Editorial Board member and IAS Governing Council member.

The fact that I am from San Francisco, where the epidemic emerged on the scene, is probably what most connected me to HIV. I was paying attention to what was happening in my own community while I was in graduate school, but I wasn’t actively involved in any kind of scientific or policy way. Through a science fellowship in the US Congress, I started to become involved more directly in policy work.

Two years later, when I was working for the Consortium of Social Science Associations, the US Government was about to support research in adult and adolescent sexual behaviour. In the context of an emerging HIV epidemic, it was particularly important to know about Americans’ sexual behaviours to know who truly was at risk.

The National Institutes of Health was poised to fund two national surveys that had been peer reviewed and approved. However, there was opposition within the George H. W. Bush administration and some members of Congress who thought the research was prurient. I became active in the advocacy around that – defending social science – which is when I got connected to a lot of HIV and AIDS organizations that also supported the surveys.

Part of the reason I have continued to work in the HIV arena is that HIV offers a lens into anything a social scientist would be interested in – sex/gender, race/ethnicity, culture, health, inequality, etc. I think that HIV remains one of the most important of all public health issues. And it has forced scientists to break a lot of disciplinary boundaries to address questions at the intersection of biological, behavioural and social-structural processes.

There are two key issues that I have encountered as a woman in science. One is not being taken seriously as an intellectual or smart person. I experienced all the stereotype things one hears about, like saying something that is not acknowledged and then watching acknowledgement when a man said the same thing I had just said. This still goes on, and while it seems like a trite example, it is indicative of a very gendered culture in which women continue to not be taken seriously with regards to their brain power and their intellect.

“The structure and culture of work hasn’t changed much over the past 30-40 years to allow women to be a parent while working.”

The other issue is that, notwithstanding the feminist movement, the structure and culture of work hasn’t changed much over the past 30-40 years to allow women to be a parent while working. This feels especially true in the United States. It is very hard for any young woman to optimize her identity and activities as a parent while optimizing her identity and activities as a professional, because the necessary policy changes haven’t occurred. There’ve been some tweaks around the edges, but for the most part, I find that women are constantly struggling with that dilemma, and feeling like they are coming up short in both arenas.

I did not really have a mentor during my graduate school career. I was busy supporting myself with multiple jobs, and the joke was that I didn’t work “with” anyone, but I worked “for” everyone! The one real mentor I found was a history professor at the University of Michigan who led a summer seminar I attended. He understood that I was interested in policy-related work, and encouraged me to apply for the Congressional fellowship. Based on my experience, I would tell younger people to be open to seeking mentors outside your own institution. One initiative that offers this for North American scholars is the Professional-Needs Mentor Program of the professional organization, Sociologists for Women in Society, which links feminist scholarship and activism.

It matches younger early-career members with more senior faculty or practicing sociologists from other institutions, and provides assistance with everything from dissertation development to manuscript writing and job searches. It’s been around in some form since the early 1980s and has been hugely helpful to many women social scientists.

The advice I would give to young women and girls is to be assertive without being aggressive by speaking up when you are sure what you are talking about and seeking opportunities where you can shine and other people can see your work. Do not be afraid to approach people you admire and ask them questions. Academic women and men are put on a track in the university system and they are told by their faculty how things must be done. You should also think about what else in life you might want to be doing. There are choices you can make that allow you to continue on this professional trajectory, but maybe not in the same way. You need to find people who can inform you of your options and support you in whatever trajectory you follow.

One thing I’ve really enjoyed about the IAS and being on the Governing Council is that there is a remarkably good gender balance; you see as many women as men in high-level positions in the organization.

“When a young scientist can see real gender balance in an organization’s leadership and governance structures, that’s worth a lot.”

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The above text is a series of excerpts from a phone interview and has been edited for length.