A virology pioneer’s story sets the stage for a global gender equity conversation

Inspired by the late June Almeida, who discovered the first human coronavirus, Elsevier Chairman YS Chi addresses the global Gender Summit

By Youngsuk "YS" Chi - August 26, 2020
YS Chi's 2020 Gender Summit presentation
Elsevier Chairman and Foundation President Youngsuk “YS” Chi opened his virtual keynote presentation for the 19th Gender Summit by telling the story of June Almeida, who discovered the first known human coronavirus in 1964.

Editor's note: This article is based on Youngsuk “YS” Chi’s keynote presentation, which he gave virtually for the 19th Gender Summit.

The virus that has changed our society so much this year is more deeply connected to the topic of gender equality and women in STEM than you may at first realize.

Let me tell you a little bit more about what I mean.

Have any of you heard of a woman named June Almeida?

She is a very important virologist – a pioneer, actually, in virus imaging, identification and diagnosis. Born in 1930 in Scotland, June dropped out of school at the age of 16. She was a top student but could not financially afford to continue. Instead, she found a job as a low-level lab technician, examining cells and tissues under a microscope.

In her mid-20s, June moved to Toronto with her husband and took on a new job as an electron microscopy technician. Now remember, she had only worked before as a basic lab technician and lacked formal education and training in this field. This was also the 1950s, so detecting viruses in tissue samples was painstaking work. Examining a single sample could take hours.

But that is what set June apart. Not only did she have exceptional attention to detail, patience and persistence, but she also exercised the right preparations every time. Her skills and qualities soon became apparent and ultimately led her to something that nobody had ever seen before 1964. Yet it is something that we all know well today: the coronavirus.

By using new techniques and methods, June pushed the envelope in electron microscopy and exceeded all expectations by discovering the first human coronavirus particles. Along the way, she also proved many of her male skeptics and colleagues wrong. In the years after, June continued to make her mark in the scientific world by capturing more breakthroughs, such as seeing the first image of the rubella virus, and identifying the virus structure that causes hepatitis B.

Safe to say, these are all extraordinary and laudable discoveries. But if not for COVID-19, it is likely that we would not have heard of June at all. And more importantly, June is only one of many remarkable women whose efforts have changed the world yet remain largely unrecognized.

Persisting gender inequalities

Persisting inequalities in the STEM ecosystem
Just 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women, according to UNESCO. Meanwhile, Elsevier’s 2020 gender report revealed that of the 15 research-intensive regions examined, just 38 percent of active authors in 2014-18 were women. Also, there are considerable differences among countries and disciplines in that time period. For example, with math-related publications, US women accounted for only 16 percent of the country’s active authors, whereas Argentinian women accounted for 33 percent.

Despite recent promising developments, many gender inequalities still exist in science – both within our ecosystem and in our actual research practices. For one, only 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women.

Even with evidence that gender diversity drives productivity and innovation, the reality is that women

scientists, on average, are still underrepresented at senior levels within the ranks of their institutions, receive less grant money, are promoted more slowly, and are allocated fewer resources for research than their men counterparts.

In terms of publishing, women researchers around the world author fewer articles than men, though we see that this gap is slowly narrowing. From 1999 to 2003, women authors made-up 29 percent of the global active author population. Fast-forward to 2014 to 2018, and the number of women authors has risen to 38 percent.

But it is important to note that these aggregate numbers hide considerable disciplinary and country-level differences. For example, when looking at math-related publications from 2014 to 2018, American women accounted for only 16 percent of their country’s active authors, whereas Argentinian women accounted for 33 percent.

On the other hand, the gender ratio across life and health science disciplines is closer to parity. In fact, in subjects like nursing research, women represent the majority of authors.

While there are considerable improvements, men and women researchers still face different realities, and such differences stem from traditional gender stereotypes perpetuated by our social and environmental factors.

We see this clearly in the distribution of higher education STEM students who are women, which sits globally at a mere 30 percent. And with women leaving research at a higher rate than men throughout the course of careers, an even smaller percentage will end up in leadership and senior researcher roles.

In fact, an OECD study actually found that at just 15 years old, young boys are already more than twice as likely as girls to expect to grow up and work in science or engineering fields, and 12 times as likely as girls to expect to grow up and work in IT fields.

What’s more, the same study’s aptitude tests revealed similar performance results between these boys and girls – the only difference was that the girls claimed to have less confidence in their abilities. So without equitable support from stakeholders like us, ambitious and capable young girls will continue to drop out of STEM, and this will negatively affect societal advancement.

As leaders, we must address these glaring imbalances, and make STEM more welcoming and inclusive for women students and researchers.

But our work doesn’t just stop there.

We must also tackle the gender inequalities and biases that exist in research. These affect the broader demographic of women and can lead to real harm.

Persisting inequalities in research
When clinical trials and other studies fail to include women as subjects, the results are often less applicable to women, resulting in misdiagnoses and adverse consequences for women. (Sources: Quartz, Consumer Reports)

For instance, women’s health has suffered historically because their bodies are less understood than those of men. To date, many studies have failed to account for sex and gender differences and tend to have an unequal representation of women in important clinical trials. Results or recommendations are based primarily on findings from only the male body yet generalized to apply to both men and women. As one can imagine, such biased practices have led to misdiagnoses and adverse consequences for women around the world.

Similarly, women drivers are faced with graver dangers due to testing focused on men. Though researchers discovered 40 years ago that the bodies of women and men react differently in crashes, the vast majority of auto-safety testing in the US today is still designed to address the average 76-kilogram, 177-centimeter (168-pound, 5’10-inch) tall man. These are only a few samples of how harmful gender bias in research can be.

If we are to create a more sustainable future, correcting such inequalities must be at the top of our agendas. At Elsevier, we recognize our responsibility in the STEM community and hope to use our capabilities to better inform, guide and enable leaders like you to take action.

Elsevier’s support for gender equality

What is Elsevier doing to promote equality

I’d like to share three ways in which we are working with the community to promote greater gender diversity:

  1. By leading initiatives to make publishing and research practices more equitable
  2. By leveraging data analytics to drive actionable insights and empirical data to inform policy
  3. And by engaging in global partnerships

Industry initiatives

Elsevier-led industry initiatives
Elsevier has taken many steps to address gender diversity, including forming an Inclusion & Diversity Advisory Board this year.

When the SDGs were first adopted five years ago, Elsevier moved quickly to put together an internal, cross-business Gender Working Group. The goal was to identify workstreams examining key processes, principles and systems to ensure that Elsevier supports the most robust research possible in the most equitable and inclusive way, and establish a framework of best policies that other organizations could emulate.

One of the key areas identified by the group is gender diversity among reviewers, editors and editorial board members. A low representation of women throughout the publishing process can reduce the diversity of ideas or perspectives, subsequently hampering the sharing of knowledge and advancement of science. At Elsevier, we feel strongly about increasing the representation of women in our journals, and through our Gender Working Group’s interventions, have seen tangible actions accelerate our efforts for greater gender diversity and equality.

For example, The Lancet, an Elsevier journal, adopted a Diversity Pledge last August to increase the representation of women and people of color among its editorial advisers, peer reviewers and authors. On top of that, it also adopted a No All-Male Panel Policy, in which no Lancet editor will serve as a panelist if there are no women on the panel. Similarly, Cell Press, another of Elsevier’s journal portfolios, has adopted a Gender Balance Pledge, focusing on gender diversity in editorial and review processes.

These encouraging changes inspired us to expand on our efforts and unlock the full potential of our STEM community. So five months ago, we launched Elsevier’s Inclusion & Diversity Advisory Board.

With nine influential non-Elsevier leaders and experts, the board’s mission is to address gender disparities across the research ecosystem, working with academics, governments, funders and publishers alike.

Dr. Elizabeth Pollitzer, the wonderful founder of this Gender Summit, is actually one of our members and can speak to the board’s breadth of initiatives. It implements pilot programs, introduces guidance policies, and shares best practices with relevant industry stakeholders.

Of course, it is important for each of us here to keep our foot on the gas, but the challenge of attaining gender equality is highly complex. It is our hope that these Elsevier-led initiatives act as powerful conveners within the research ecosystem, uniting us to create more rigorous research and inclusive and equitable applications of research.

Contributing our expertise in data science and analytics

Contributing our expertise in data and analytics
Elsevier has contributed its analytical expertise to a wide range of publications and initiatives.

Although we are still often thought of as a print publisher, the truth is that Elsevier is predominantly a technology-driven analytics provider. By combining our enormous amount of content and networks with sophisticated computing expertise, Elsevier has positioned itself as a data science company, harnessing the power of data and analytics to expose gaps and areas of improvement.

One example of how we are using data analytics to tackle gender disparity is through our research reports. Using an evidence-based approach that taps into our Scopus database of over 76 million peer-reviewed research documents, we are able to integrate new indicators and bibliometric analyses that reflect the status of gender equality around the world.

In 2018, we contributed such analytical expertise to the European Commission’s She Figures publication, which compares gender balance in research and innovation at the pan-European level. And since 2015, Elsevier has used our own data and information solutions to publish gender reports. Our third and most recent report was released in March and highlights the impact of gender on researchers’ participation in research, research footprint, career progression, collaborations and more. Through our analytics, we have identified areas of progress but also shine a light on the areas where considerable gender gaps still exist between disciplines and geographies.

Recently, we have deployed our data and analytics on a novel approach to investigating the inclusion of sex and gender considerations across SDG research. My colleague Holly (Dr. Holly J. Falk-Krzesinski) is presenting on this in Theme 6, but as a quick preview, Elsevier has applied an innovative keyword and overlay mapping method to examine the inclusion of sex and/or gender studies across all 16 SDGs’ targets and indicators research. An example of our study’s findings is that only 2 percent of 2018’s publications related to SDG 9: “Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure” factored in sex and/or gender into their research. As we already know, gender bias can be detrimental, and uncovering data like these can shine a light on where we need to urgently improve.

Now, while Elsevier’s initiatives and data analytics are important to advancing gender equality, they alone, are not enough to drive change across the STEM industry. This is where the final piece of our puzzle comes in: global partnerships.

Engaging in global partnerships

Global partnerships slide
Elsevier has partnerships with organizations around the world. Pictured here: a data science course by Girls Inc of New York City and Elsevier CEO Kumsal Bayazit at a Gender Summit with founder Elizabeth Pollitzer, PhD.

By engaging with stakeholders like you around the world, we can merge our individual expertise and resources to achieve the shared goal of gender equality.

At Elsevier, several of our partnerships are created via the Elsevier Foundation, which is now in its 15th year of advancing diversity in science. Just last year, we teamed up with Girls Inc of New York City to introduce a course that prepares low-income and underserved girls to study data analytics in high school. Our goal is to help these girls foster a stronger interest in data analytics and increase overall confidence in their abilities.

Hopefully, more and more partnerships like that will take place in the near future. In fact, a few might even materialize from this very event.

Since 2011, Elsevier has had a prominent and longstanding partnership with the Gender Summit. We look forward to every summit because they are not just regular events or conferences. Instead, they are platforms for change. They always produce tangible and measurable outcomes.

A few years ago, I attended the first ever APAC Gender Summit, and we came out of it with a formal Declaration that called on policymakers to promote gendered research, and also a thorough report on gender-based innovations for the UN SDGs. This year, I am optimistic that our first ever global Gender Summit will produce similarly compelling results. Despite our unusual circumstances, this event can be a catalyst for change.

Now more than ever, we must reach out, connect and work together. By way of solidarity, close collaboration and partnerships, we can become a much more powerful force in advancing gender equality.

“Let’s help more women like June be included …”

It is clear that there is a jagged road ahead before we reach gender equity in STEM. But as key leaders in the industry, we have the responsibility to smooth that path.

One of my favorite parts about the virologist June Almeida’s story is that she never stopped contributing to science – she just couldn’t stay away! After retiring, she became a yoga teacher and even traded antiques for a bit. But none of that satisfied her the way that scientific research and discovery did. So she actually came back to STEM and worked as an advisor in London’s St. Thomas’ Hospital until her passing – the very same place she discovered the coronavirus decades earlier.

If anything, June’s story shows us that science is powerful, and having the means and support to pursue that is life-changing. So let’s help more women like June be included. Let’s make our community and our research more equitable. And finally, let’s harness our initiatives, analytics and partnerships to advance human progress together.

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Written by

Youngsuk "YS" Chi

Written by

Youngsuk "YS" Chi

Youngsuk "YS" Chi is an international businessman and a global thought leader in the publishing, education and information solutions industries. As Chairman of Elsevier, he works directly with key stakeholders in government, academia and industry to support over 30 million scientists, students and health information professionals.

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