Meet The Woman Fixing Science's Glaring Gender Inequality Problem
Can you name an Asian female scientist? In fact, can you name any female scientist who isn't Marie Curie? Unless you're in the field yourself, the answer is most likely no. Juliana Chan is on a mission to fix that and help women get on a path to equality in the still male-dominated world of scientific research.
A former research scientist, Chan is currently the CEO of Wildtype Media Group, Asia's leading STEM-focused media company, and the editor of Asian Scientist, the region's largest science magazine. But as well as spreading the scientific word to the masses, she has a very ambitious plan to help women in STEM—in fact that was one of the reasons she left academia.
“There is still so much we can do,” she says, on the phone from Singapore. “One is to reduce the number of men-filled panels, or ‘menels’ as I like to call them. I recently attended a talk with seven men on the panel—could they not have even made an effort to have included one woman?”
In early September, she moderated the 16th Gender Summit, which fights back against the often-held assumption that science is gender-neutral. In fact, research outcomes are frequently worse for women than for men; and men continue to secure the majority of top-level jobs in science, and the majority of research funding.
Studies show that inequality starts right at the beginning of the scientific process—right when researchers petition for money from funding bodies. It had already been shown that men, for instance, have a much higher chance than women of obtaining funding for their research
“We were all very focused on how we could help women in research and development,” says Chan, on the summit. “We were a large group of women from specific industries who came together, and there were speakers from all over the world.”
“Two important points stood out for me,” she continues. “Women tend to win teaching prizes, while men win research prizes, and the prestige and power comes from research, so men always climb the ladder faster. Another important point comes from policy. In the EU, policy has shifted from seeing how to fix women—and thereby say that we are the problem, to seeing how we can fix the system, so taking the burden off our shoulders.”
This meant moving away from rhetoric about how women need to ask for more money and be more openly ambitious—or ‘Lean In’ as Sheryl Sandberg advised—to creating an environment where women can flourish without changing their behaviour, even if that means enacting legislation.
“I hate the word quota, you hate the word quota, we all hate the word quota,” says Chan. “And no woman wants to feel like she got a job or research grant because of her gender. But I really do believe that forcing managers to at least choose from a diverse list of candidates when they’re hiring will make an important difference to women’s career trajectories. This needs to be legislated on. We need to all accept that sometimes you’re the woman who is on the panel because you’re a woman, but at least you’re there and have the chance to get the conversation started.”
And while Chan herself has never experienced any direct sexism in science, she did find that pregnancy changed her career trajectory and made combining child-rearing with research almost impossible to navigate.
We need to all accept that sometimes you’re the woman who is on the panel because you’re a woman, but at least you’re there and have the chance to get the conversation started
— Juliana Chan
“My career took a hit when I had two children as I couldn’t perform at the same level as before,” she says. “My children are now six and three, and after I had my second child, things got really hairy and I realised I couldn't work late hours and weekend. After a while I decided that being a full-time professor, running a publishing company and having two children wasn’t possible, so I closed my lab to focus on my magazines.”
And while Chan is understandably very proud about her new career on the editorial side of science, she speaks somewhat wistfully about the male scientists she knew who would casually announce that their children were due to be born in a few days’ time, and whose careers remained entirely unaffected by childrearing.
“When I was at MIT, a brilliant member of the female faculty once told me that after you give birth, you need to take as little downtime as possible and return to the lab as quickly as you can," says Chan. "I knew women there who would be back a week later. At that point I hadn’t had children, but now I have, I know I couldn’t have ever gone back a month later, let alone a week. But if you want to be a professor, you really don’t have much wriggle room.”
Ultimately Chan is hopeful for the future of women, citing the fact that there are enlightened individuals around the world—many of them men—who are determined to help women shatter the glass ceiling.
"Of course I believe in change," she says. "I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't."