How Celebrating Women Can Promote Progress in STEM

New research proves old news true: according to a study published in Nature Human Behavior, gender biases still exist in promotion and award selection committees in the science fields.

Incidentally, this fall, all winners of Nobel prizes in the science fields—including chemistryphysics and physiology or medicine—were men. In its history, the Nobel Prize has been awarded to only 54 women, while over 850 men have received it, and beyond the Nobel prize, women make up only 13.8 percent of most prestigious science prizes, and when they win them, they get less prestige.

Closing these gaps is more than a vanity project or a matter of ego boosts. Helping women succeed in science helps other women succeed in science—and makes STEM fields stronger.

(Vlad Tchompalov / Unsplash)

Awards and recognition can help women in the sciences, because often they are necessary for promotion in the private sector, government and academic jobs. When we recognize and award women for their contributions and exceptional performance in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), they also become role models for all girls and women. They send a strong message to other women and girls that they, too, can succeed and break the glass ceiling in the sector.

Sustaining the progress we’ve made in curbing gender biases and inequalities in the STEM fields demands more than focusing on increasing the number of girls going into the STEM pipeline. It requires that more effort and resources are channeled to celebrate, highlight and award women scientists who have already completed that leaky journey.

One strategy that can facilitate efforts geared towards celebrating and highlighting successful women in STEM is compiling databases of the available awards and their deadlines. Complementing this strategy is the need to compile databases of women in STEM and include notable key accomplishments they have achieved so that we know who to nominate.

The good news is that some of these binders full of women in STEM in already exist for certain fields—including chemistryecologysoil sciences and plant sciences. In addition, we have larger databases such as the Request a Woman Scientist that list women from different STEM fields. Expanding these, and adding achievements to them, would be a powerful next step in harnessing their utility.

These resources alone should provide professional societies with the help they need to set policies and rules ensuring that diversity in awards and panels is the norm. We have a big pool of women and minority scientists today, and there’s no reason they aren’t getting as much exposure as their male peers.

Executive Directors, Presidents and Governing Boards must also take a stand on diversity and inclusion. The National Institutes of Health, Director, Dr. Francis Collins, recently announced that he would no longer speak on panels that do not include women. Imagine what would happen if all leaders took such a stand in appreciation and support of qualified and competent women’s inclusion.

Of course, we’ve seen some progress toward gender equality in the science fields. In 2016, the majority of the degrees awarded in the Science and Engineering Fields were awarded to women; according to the Council of Graduate Schools, the majority of the doctoral degrees awarded in U.S. Universities in 2017, were awarded to women; within the Entomological Society of America, a professional society to which I belong, 44 percent of all the awards recipients in 2019 were women, and seven out of the 10 Governing Board officials are female.

But much more must be done. The truth is, despite the progress we have made in reducing some of the gender biases and inequalities in the scientific community, women in scientific fields continue to fight for equality on many fronts—from equal pay at workplaces and honorable mentions and recognition in professional societies and global awards.

Awards and honors present communities with an opportunity to celebrate the people taking STEM sectors to new heights—and they can also be an opportunity to highlight the diversity of our fields. Closing the gender gap in promotions and awards would go a long way in inspiring women and girls—and changing the face of STEM for good.


Esther Ngumbi, PhD is Assistant Professor in the Department of Entomology and African American Studies Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.