PARIS — In its quest to change the gender imbalance in scientific research, L’Oréal is launching today a pedagogic campaign online called #ChangeTheNumbers.

Currently only 30 percent of scientific researchers are women.

Whereas 49 percent of people studying science in high school are female, that declines to 32 percent at the bachelor level, to 25 percent in the Ph.D. level and to 11 percent in top academic positions in the field. Since its first award in 1901, the Nobel Prize has recognized just three women in science.

One of them, Elizabeth Blackburn, attended a press conference held in Paris this morning where an international study — conducted by L’Oréal and OpinionWay market research agency — was presented. Its aim was to try and decipher reasons for the disparities and the restraints female scientists come upon as their careers progress.

Blackburn reminisced how as a teenager a schoolteacher said to her: “What’s a nice girl like you doing going into science?”

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The anecdote illustrated perfectly one of the three main findings of the study that was revealed by Hugues Cazenave, president of OpinionWay — that preconceptions remain highly engrained. Sixty-seven percent of Europeans queried think women don’t have the requisite capacities to obtain high-level scientific positions, for instance.

There is a real underestimation of the gender gap, as well. Those polled guessed that 28 percent of the most highly placed scientific academics in the European Union are women. The real level, however, stands at 11 percent.

The study’s silver lining involves signs that society wants change. Fifty-nine percent of Europeans deem the evolution of women in positions of scientific research to be too slow, for example.

The L’Oréal Foundation chose to share the study’s results and to engage people with the campaign #ChangeTheNumbers. The multifaceted digital platform can be accessed at changethenumbers.science and includes the research’s results and also a talk by Blackburn, who in 2008 was the laureate of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards, which for the past 17 years has recognized the achievements of five female scientists. Each one works in the physical sciences and hails from a different part of the globe.

Since 1998, For Women in Science — which was represented at the meeting by David Macdonald, director of its philanthropy — has acknowledged more than 2,250 women from more than 110 countries.

To young women considering entering a scientific field, Blackburn counseled: “Persist. If you like science, you’re getting all of these very mixed messages, these horrific messages — [that] 67 percent of people don’t think women can do science. So at some point people are going to start believing, ‘Oh, maybe this is true.’ This is really so counter to my years of experience as somebody working with trainees — postdoctoral, predoctoral undergraduates.

“I worked for decades at very good high-level institutions [realizing] superb high-class research, and the women are just as good as the men,” she continued. “Yet they feel more self-critical, less confident that they are able to do it. And I really relate to that, because I felt that. So the advice is, don’t believe that you’re not as good because you really are.”

 

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