These days, more and more women are proving that they can succeed in fields that were once unavailable to them. However, the female participation rate for STEM industries is 30 percent or less in some of the world's largest economies.
One women, Simone Badal McCreath, told U.S. News that she dreamed of being a doctor. Her mother had left the family when she was young and she grew up in a poor community and no one in her family had ever gone to college. Bu, her father who was an uneducated, yet brilliant shopkeeper wanted his children to get an education. One of McCreath’s challenges in high school was a lack of science teachers, so it wasn’t until she arrived at the University of the West Indies and she knew she wouldn’t be practicing medicine.
“There was this one professor who taught biochemistry,” she told U.S. News. “I remember falling in love with biochemistry right then and there. It wasn’t abstract. One chemical process has to happen before another one can happen. For example, first insulin releases; it travels to cells; blood sugar is affected. It made sense, and I fell in love with it.”
McCreath and four other women faced and met their own challenges to go on to win the 2014 Elsevier Foundation Award for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World. The award is intended to give women in poor nations the international recognition that often leads to financial and peer support to advance their work. The five women, all chemists, were honored for their work that looks to nature for potential cures and treatments for cancer, malaria and other diseases.
“In sciences, academia and research, there’s value in recognition,” said David Ruth, executive director of the Elsevier Foundation. “Women are an untapped resource in the developing world.”
The global picture is grim for women in STEM fields as the number of women working in those fields is on the decline. One study of some of the world’s largest economies, including the United States, the European Union, South Africa, Korea, Indonesia and India, found that in physics, computer sciences, and engineering the participation rate of women is 30 percent or less. In countries that have made an effort to increase the number of women studying science and technology, those efforts have not translated into more women working in the fields.
Other things, like glass ceilings, lack of child care, and cultural obstacles against women in science, get in the way of career advancement. For instance, in the Arab world, the number of women studying physics is higher than men, but that number drops dramatically at the faculty level in universities. To see the ripple effect of greater numbers of women in specific fields of science, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations looked at women in agricultural science. The FAO estimates that increasing the number of women scientists reaching out to female farmers at the same level that male farmers are being reached by scientists would result in an increase in agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 percent to 4 percent; it could reduce the number of undernourished people by 12 percent to 17 percent; and reduce the number of undernourished people around the globe by 100 million to 150 million people. In very poor countries, before women can become scientists, engineers, computer experts or mathematicians, they must be able to read and write.
In Yemen, the literacy rate among women is only 46 percent compared to 80 percent among men. In Nigeria, about half of women can read and write, compared to 72 percent of men. Two of the award winners are from those countries - these women have overcome obstacles far beyond basic reading and writing, and they have excelled. In many ways, their lives have been very different.
Despite their differences, there are common threads among the women honored this year and in previous years. Many of them talk about having had a mentor, according to Ruth. But most of all, they uniformly talk about the support they have from others – husbands, children, parents and extended families.
“What’s striking is that you see a lot of women coming to get this award with their families,” Ruth said. “They have a support network. In parts of the world where gender is more of an issue, it takes more than just one individual to be able to succeed.”
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