Access to education key to boosting number of women in science, scientist says

Interview with CIFOR’s Stibniati Atmadja on International Day of Women and Girls in Science
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Stibniati Atmadja, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research, addresses the Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Katowice, Poland on “10 years of REDD+: what have we learned?” Credit: Global Landscapes Forum

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For the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the United Nations is highlighting data that show fewer than 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women. The statistics also show that only about 30 percent of female students elect to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in institutes of higher learning.

Female enrollment in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector is also low: 3 percent in natural sciences; 5 percent in mathematics and statistics; and 8 percent in engineering, manufacturing and construction.

“To rise to the challenges of the 21st century, we need to harness our full potential,” said Antonio Guterres, U.N. secretary general. “That requires dismantling gender stereotypes. On this International Day of Women and Girls in Science, let’s pledge to end the gender imbalance in science.”

Each year on Feb. 11, International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which was adopted by a U.N. resolution in 2015, participants aim to highlight the need to achieve full and equal access and participation, gender equality and empowerment.

The challenges are steep.

In the United States, for example, women earn about half of all doctorates in science and engineering, but make up only 21 percent of full science professors and 5 percent of engineering professors, according to an article in Science. On average, women earn only 82 percent of what male scientists earn.

In 2006, in the European Union, women scientists earned an average of between 25 and 40 percent less than male scientists in the public sector, the article states.

Women also drop out of science careers early in disproportionate numbers. Although 70 percent of first year women chemistry doctoral students said they planned a career in research, by third year, only 37 percent had met that goal, compared with 59 percent of men, it adds.

“Despite decades of research and intervention, female students receive fewer opportunities and less recognition than their male counterparts, and women are less likely than men to occupy leadership roles, or to work in mathematics-intensive fields such as physics and engineering,” say the authors of an article in Trends in Ecology & Evolution journal.

The number of women engaged in scientific pursuits for study or work, and the wages they earn, remain substantially lower in comparison to their male counterparts, the authors state, suggesting that part of the challenge of achieving equality relates to the way the term equality is defined. There is no single definition of success, and too narrow a focus on any one aspect of equality can have unintended consequences, they write.

Taking an intersectional analytical approach – factoring in a combination of influences affecting gender disparities – can shed further light on some of the challenges girls and women face, the experiences or opportunities they miss. In addition to gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, nationality, health, sexual orientation, age and physical location can disadvantage or empower.


In some arenas measurable change has occurred.

A 2018 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal demonstrates that the proportion of female authors collaborating on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global climate watchdog, increased from 5 percent in 1990 to more than 20 percent in recent years.

For example, the 2018 landmark IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 C included 38 percent women authors, according to researchers.

Strong role models and access to formal education can make the difference for women, says Stibniati Atmadja, a scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Her career benefitted from growing up in a supportive household and the opportunities a good education opened up, she says, adding that she had no clear goals as a child and fell into a career in forestry science almost by chance, her initial interest piqued by the many trees and insects in the leafy home in the outskirts of Jakarta where she grew up.

In girlhood, her scholastic pursuits were supported by her mother, a pathologist, and her father, a geologist.

“I was fortunate to have parents who would then nurture that interest,” says Atmadja, who in Grade 3 considered becoming a geneticist or botanist.

“When I was a high school student in Jakarta and later a first-year university student in Manila, all I could see was pollution and the poor state of the environment,” she said, explaining how she ultimately wound up studying the interrelationships between environment and economics. “My interest resulted from economic reasons – the environment was not being valued properly.”

Transferred from Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, she subsequently earned two undergraduate degrees at Australia’s Murdoch University in economics and environmental science, and a master’s and a doctoral degree in natural resource economics in the United States at North Carolina State University. Afterwards, she lived and worked in Indonesia and Ethiopia. She currently resides in France.

“I had a huge choice of programs I could take,” she said, adding that overseas travel exposed her to wider curriculums and alternative social structures, a contrast which raised her awareness of limitations that can hold women back in a given place or in certain circumstances.

“I’m blind to the fact that I’m a woman in a scientific career,” said Atmadja, who joined CIFOR in 2008 and whose research focus is on gathering data and writing about forests and climate change.

Her work involved traveling, often alone or as the only woman on a team, for weeks at a time, in remote villages to understand how people use and manage their forests. She saw how expectations about the kinds of people doing this research work could filter out young women.

“There were so many beliefs that cast women as either the target or conjurer of bad spirits, and limitations on how women travel and interact with places, people, topics and occupations,” she said.

“Villagers would look at me, wondering how I ended up with such a job – following fisher folks, deer hunters, bird trappers deep in the forest, and doing interviews with such a wide variety of people. I, on the other hand, never thought my work was particularly strange for a female or any gender for that matter.”

Reflecting on why she was blind to such gender biases and could pursue activities she loved without feeling constrained by gender norms, she said that in girlhood she was never told there were limits on what she could do.

“I don’t recall my parents telling me ‘girls should do this and can’t do that’ — ever. I grew up assuming that women can do what men can do because I saw that was exactly what my mother did,” Atmadja explained.

Her mother was among the few Indonesian women in her field of pathology, then she led a large national non-governmental organization focused on planned parenthood. Her work gave her the opportunity to travel to every corner of the country and to talk with many people from all walks of life – from sex workers and street kids to ministers and celebrities. She moved on to work in a multilateral development bank, a dynamic environment which introduced her to a greater number of interesting places and people.

“I saw opportunities by being female, not limitations,” Atmadja added. “It formed my expectation of what jobs I could do.”

This experience has led her to believe that parents play an important role in increasing the presence of more women in science, especially in the Global South.

“I’m now a mom,” she said. “I have a girl and a boy. My husband and I try to give both kids equal opportunities by letting them see and act on opportunities without being constrained by gendered expectations.

“To parents, I would say, think about the gender awareness you put on your kids because it will reflect on how they see the world, how they see themselves in the world and how they would see the opportunities that come to them. There are social norms based on gender that parents and kids need to be aware of. We can support our kids by helping them achieve their potential despite these norms.”

Atmadja also credits her luck in pursuing a career she loves to the educational privileges she had that many others may not have: she not only grew up in a household with formally educated parents, but she attended school in developed countries and benefited from travel experiences in many countries.

“Women interested in science need to know their skills and should not be afraid to say: ‘I’m not good at that, but I’m good at this.’ Then try and find a path that is feasible for them to pursue whatever they are good at and open up to options. Talk to women in the field. Even if the options in the context seemingly are not fit for women, it’s OK. You can do it.”

But take my advice with a grain of salt because it reflects my privileged perspective, she added.

For more information on this topic, please contact Stibniati Atmadja at
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