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Female scientists are not alone on their scientific path

The L’Oréal-UNESCO Global Program for Women and Science promotes women pursuing science. By providing scholarships and creating a community of female scientists, women are supported in their careers. However, there is still a long way to go before true equality in science is achieved. 

Goals and values of the program

The L’Oréal UNESCO Program for Women and Science has been operating in Poland for nearly 25 years. Since its beginnings, a key focus of the initiative has been to support women in science. Ms. Barbara Stępień, director of the program, notes:

“When the L’Oréal UNESCO Global Partnership was established, the lack of diversity in science and the barriers women faced at the time were a very big problem.”

Women faced obstacles that they had to deal with, both when they wanted to start their scientific careers and when they wanted to pursue them further.

The program, with the goal of supporting women in science, works on two levels – it provides financial support by awarding scholarships and promotes female scientists in the scientific community, but also among the public.

Ms. Barbara Stępień emphasizes that laureates of the program can use the scholarships, for any purpose. These are not funds for scientific and research work. The laureates use the money for childcare, buying textbooks and publications, but also for trips to scientific conferences.

“It is a supplement to the household budget that allows them to stay in science,” – says Ms. Stępień.

Meanwhile, the second part of the program is to promote women in science, in order to, in the words of the program’s organizer: “to change the stereotype of the scientist as an older man”.

She notes that such a change in thinking is still needed in the scientific community. As an example, she points to artificial intelligence models that show older men when nowadays asked to show scientists at work.

“This illustrates how much more there is to do,” she argues.

In addition to promoting the profiles of the laureates in the media and financial support, the program also offers a special social platform that brings together all the laureates of the more than 130 editions of the Program for Women in Science around the world. Ms. Barbara Stępień emphasizes that networking on the platform often results in the formation of new international research teams.

Female laureates also have access to the Coursera training platform, and dedicated training courses to develop their project management skills.

Renowned program with important partners

Thanks to a long presence in Poland and important partnerships, the winners of L’Oréal UNESCO’s program for Women and Science receive truly prestigious awards.

L’Oréal’s global partner is UNESCO, and locally the program also works with three important institutions in Poland. The partners of the program are the Ministry of Science and Higher Education, the Polish Academy of Sciences and the United Nations Global Compact Network Poland.

These are very strong partners, and each of them is taking action for equality and diversity in science. Program organizer stresses that it is important that there are as many people and institutions as possible who have a real influence on decision-making:

“We try to reach out to a very diverse range of communities that have a real impact on the situation of women in science.”

What the jury pays attention to

Prof. Dr. Łojkowska, chairwoman of the jury, says what criteria are taken into account when selecting female laureates:

“These criteria were developed at the beginning, when the program was established in 2001. Then they were adjusted to changing conditions. The criteria are based primarily on the fact that we are evaluating the scientific achievements of women applying.”

She mentions that the jury pays attention to the originality and innovation of the research, as well as the candidates’ ability to raise funds for it. Also, the ability to publish research results is taken into account.

“And with as much competition as there is now, we also take into account whether candidates are publishing in the most reputable international journals”

– Professor Łojkowska adds.

Also taken into account is whether the career of the female scientist can serve as a good example for other women in science.

The criteria also depend on which category the candidates are evaluated in. There are Postdoctoral Fellowships, Doctoral Fellowships and Master’s Fellowships, and of course, we have different criteria and rewards in each of these groups, explains Ms. Łojkowska. Another thing to consider is the age of the applicants. The age limit for the doctoral fellowship is 35, and for the postdoctoral fellowship it is 40. For several years, the program has added 2 years to the age limit for each child born.

Benefits of the program

The effects of the program are formal and informal, adds Ms. Łojkowska. Formal effects refer to obtaining a postdoctoral or doctoral degree. And the informal effects are the promotion of the ladies by L’Oréal – in the media, through various articles, exhibitions and showing their presence in the scientific community, both in Poland and abroad. Ms. Barbara Stępień adds that another effect of the program is to affirm and support the laureates in their life choices.

“Their life choices that they make are not always so obvious – whether to stay in science or not, especially at the initial stage, when there are a lot of alternatives. It’s also a signal to them that it was a good choice and that they are not alone on their scientific path.”

In addition, through the network of scholarship recipients, female scientists support each other, encourage each other to apply to future competitions and initiatives, and share their successes.

“The kind of careers the program’s scholarship recipients have made over the years is the best showcase of the program,”

– concludes Ms. Stępień.

Changes in the program

Professor Łojkowska tells how the program has changed over the past few years:

“In the first five editions there were around 100 candidates for the doctoral fellowship and about 20-30 for the postdoctoral fellowship. And for the past few years there have been the same number of female candidates for both scholarships. Which means that a much larger number of women in Poland are reaching for a postdoctoral degree.”

A greater number of scholarships are now being awarded just for postdoctoral degrees, so as to support ladies in this next step of their academic careers.

“In the case of women, this is also the time when they decide to have children. Which is an additional burden. Because it is well known that in terms of equality of parental responsibilities, there remains much to be desired,” notes Ms. Łojkowska.

Ms Barbara Stępień adds:

“Studies show that when a child appears in a family of two scientists, women’s careers slow down, while the careers of male, the fathers, dramatically accelerate. We want to help equalize this pace.”

This shows that although the program has changed over the years, the problems for women in science remain largely the same.

The same challenges over the past 20 years

Both the Director and the Professor agree that the obstacles women face in science are still similar to when the program was just getting started.

“The challenges are the same,” Ms. Łojkowska states bitterly. – “It’s that a woman works two jobs. This one is the primary problem. These two life projects: professional work and home. As a scientist is already in the management stage, that is in habilitation, her role is project management. On the other hand, at home she manages, runs logistics and still does more basic work.”

In addition, there is the issue of self-perception. Ms. Łojkowska notes that women tend to have very high expectations for themselves, wanting to be perfect in both types of functioning – professional and private.

“This is superimposed on the stereotypical social requirements that the woman is responsible for how the home functions, how the children function.”

This also applies to parental leave when a child is born.

Professor Łojkowska cites a 2020 analysis that looked at the number of parental leaves in 2019. Out of 70 parental leaves, only 2 were taken by men. The following year, the number of men who opted for such leave increased by 100%. However, that still leaves only 4 parental leaves. 

“And yet they work in the same positions!”

– emphasizes Ms. Łojkowska.

Related to this is another issue – the space and time commitment to take on more responsibilities.

“A woman always considers more carefully whether she is able to take an additional position or not, because she realizes that most often, she is not fully available, not like a man,” adds Ms. Łojkowska.

The women note that this is why the program alone is not enough. They argue that universities and scientific units also have a role to play. They should develop gender equality measures and encourage scientists to share roles equally among partners raising children.

On the Program’s jury, there are also men, notes Director Stępień:

 “We have a very large group of friends of the program and the idea of equality among the male professors. They are very supportive of us, showing that the program is not a pro-women program, but is pro-science and supports innovation in science.”

Diversity fosters innovation

Organizers of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women and Science program sometimes face questions about why they support only women and not also men.

Ms. Barbara Stępień explains why the Program is focused specifically on female scientists:

“Women are still 30 percent in science, not half of scientists. However, we have absolute scientific evidence that innovation and new breakthroughs come faster in diverse research teams. Diverse by gender, but also by age, experience, cultural background. Any criterion of diversity affects innovation.”

She stresses that it is important to talk about this in the scientific community. To show that the pursuit of equality is not “just” supporting women. This is something that affects the development of science in general.

An example is that additional responsibilities are often placed on female scientists. Didactic, organizational, as well as administrative ones. This takes away from the time in which they could develop scientifically, notes Professor Łojkowska and Director Stępień.

“The best evidence is the fact that if we are already talking about female pro-rectors of universities, the female pro-rectors were mainly in positions for education. There were almost no female pro-rectors for academic affairs,” adds Ms. Professor Łojkowska.

Achievements of the program

One of the successes of the program is precisely that the female laureates hold senior positions in scientific institutions. Mrs. Professor Łojkowska and program organizer speak of female laureates in such positions as: ladies deans, directors of institutes and members of the Polish Academy of Sciences. They stress that this is particularly important, as the lack of diversity and equality is still very much in evidence.

“This is why we are so pleased to have a woman dean or a woman in a position managing institutions. This is also followed by various decisions that affect the implementation of equality plans at universities. This is a bit of a snowball effect. The more women in decision-making positions we have, the more we believe that the situation of women in science will improve,” says Director Stępień.

Another success is that as many as 8 female winners of the program competed in the International Rising Talents competition, also organized by the L’Oréal Foundation. Mrs. Professor and Ms. Barbara Stępień are pleased that as many as 4 of them have been awarded the prestigious International Rising Talents global scholarships.

“This proves that we have great female scientists in Poland.”

An additional success, although perhaps less tangible, is the increased sense of empowerment among the winners of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women and Science program.

“Our scholarship recipients emphasize that, on the one hand, it is a change that is taking place in themselves. An increase in self-confidence, a sense that the path they have chosen is a path that guarantees not only satisfaction, but also success. They also openly say that how they are being viewed in the work environment has changed. The promotional activities that the Foundation guarantees them translate into how they are perceived in their work environment.”

As a result, they are more likely to decide to apply for more competitions and scholarship programs.

“This award supports women in thinking that they are very good. They can run for more,” conclude Ms. Professor Łojkowska and Director Stępień.

Future plans for the program

The next edition of the program launched on a symbolic day – Women’s Day. From 08.03 to early May, female scientists will be able to apply.

As Coopernicus interviewees note, there is more and more interest in the program every year. This sets the bar for the Jury higher and higher, but the organizers of the Program are very pleased. They emphasize that the quality of applications is not declining – there are more candidates, most of them very good.

The jury meeting of the 24th edition will be held in July, and a gala ceremony is planned for November, at which the grantees of the next edition will be announced.

The program’s upcoming plans also include a lot of activities developing the very idea of equality and diversity in science. The L’Oréal-UNESCO Program for Women and Science will be present at two congresses in Lublin and at the “Women in Science” exhibition, jointly organized by the Hevelianum Science Center in Gdansk and the Fahrenheit University Women’s Club in Gdansk. It is worth noting that despite successive editions, the program does not cease to promote female scholarship recipients from previous years.

Cover photography: Pixabay

Barbara Niemczyk
I graduated from a bachelor's degree in applied linguistics and a master's degree in journalism. I have done numerous internships and fellowships in the past years, including a translation traineeship at one of the EU Institutions and a journalistic fellowship at Deutsche Welle. I have a big passion for telling stories, talking with people and exchanging ideas. I am proactive and have excellent writing skills and ease at making new connections. I like to spend my free time sailing, hiking and practicing Ashtanga Yoga.
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Barbara Niemczyk

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