The persistent challenges of supporting women in science

From unconscious and algorithmic bias to helping more girls engage with STEM, the Asia Gender Summit in Singapore spotlighted crucial diversity-building initiatives

Chan Lai Fung
Guest of Honor and first keynote speaker Chan Lai Fung, Chairman of Chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology & Research (A*STAR) in Singapore (GS16 official photo)

Achieving gender equality in STEM will require a multitude of initiatives that address the issues at various levels, from primary school to senior academia, according to speakers at the 16th Gender Summit in Singapore.

It is widely agreed that diversity leads to better research outcomes: studies have shown positive links between diverse teams and increased problem-solving capabilities. Gender-balanced teams are also more likely to consider broader viewpoints and ask broader questions in their research.

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On the other hand, lack of gender consideration can lead to significant negative consequences. For example, 8 of 10 drugs discontinued in the US between 1997 and 2000 were more harmful for women than men, a situation which might have been avoided with more gender consideration at the R&D stage of drug development.

Yet while evidence shows the positive impact of gender diversity in the science community – and conversely the negative impact of its lack – fewer than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women, so gender equity in science and research remains an elusive goal.

Elsevier CEO Kumsal Bayazit, appointed in February, has also spoken about the importance of gender equity in science, stating that it is “not only a matter of justice and rights but is crucial to producing the best research.” Bayazit will be attending and opening the reception party at the upcoming Gender Summit EU (GS17) in the Netherlands October 3 and 4.

In August, the summit was held in Singapore for the first time, bringing together 60 speakers from 24 countries to discuss diversity and gender in STEM with a focus on enhancing the value of research and innovation.

Delegates at the Gender Summit Asia Pacific (GS16) in Singapore.

These summits are designed to bring together stakeholders who shape our scientific ecosystem, including funders, research institutions, scientists, and policymakers. This latest edition was held at Biopolis, an international research and development facility, and was a volunteer effort co-organized by Dr. Lakshmi Ramachandran (Duke-NUS) and Dr. Vandana Ramachandran (SERI), along with Singapore Women in Science and Portia. They aimed to bring together professionals in the Singaporean science landscape onto a global platform to showcase the positive impacts of gender diversity in science and raise awareness of the real challenges faced by women in science, connecting grassroots with policy.

This summit welcomed Chan Lai Fung, Chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology & Research (A*STAR) in Singapore, as the guest of honor and first keynote speaker. Discussions revolved around how to tackle unconscious bias and how to better involve girls and women in STEM, including various initiatives implemented by organizations to enhance gender equity in their institutions. Many also referenced the so-called “leaky pipeline,” where women who begin pursuing STEM-related fields of study and work eventually leave and transfer to different disciplines.

Prof. Subra Suresh, President of Nanyang Technological University and second keynote speaker, mentioned that if children are not interested in STEM by grade 4 (9-10 years old), it is unlikely they will become interested in STEM later in their life. Encouraging children’s – and especially girl’s – early interest in STEM is therefore an important step to gender parity. The Elsevier Foundation’s partnership with Girls Inc. of New York City aims to do this by supporting the launch of a data analytics preparatory program to increase the number of girls enrolling in data analytics courses by improving their core skills and confidence.

“Girls Inc. has created an incredibly compelling case for a data analytics prep trajectory,” said Ylann Schemm, Director of the Elsevier Foundation, underscoring the importance of their newly-created course that teaches data science through the lens of social justice issues and contemporary culture.

The largest inequalities we still see in the science community are at senior levels, however. So while encouraging girls’ involvement in STEM, we must also implement initiatives to retain women and allow them to advance their scientific careers. Initiatives such as the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women In Science Programme, Japan Science and Technology Agency’s Jun Ashida Award for Brilliant Female Researchers and OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early-Career Woman Scientists, which acknowledge the existing bias and provide a platform to boost women’s scientific careers, continue to be important. Furthermore, helping women re-enter the pipeline is crucial, and WISET Korea’s career re-entry program is an example of a successful initiative that provides funding to women while also matching them to relevant universities and institutions, ensuring they are able to continue their professional careers after a break.

Unconscious or implicit bias also needs to be tackled to achieve gender equality, and with the increasing presence of technology in our lives, this issue may need to be addressed sooner rather than later. In his keynote, Professor Suresh posed the question: Will artificial intelligence (AI) decrease bias or increase it?

This was, in fact, an overarching theme of a parallel session organised by Elsevier: “Gender and AI: developing and deploying talent – fairly and effectively.”

The session, moderated by Dr. Anders Karlsson, VP of Global Strategic Networks at Elsevier, focused on the diversity crisis in the AI and computer technology industry as well as the potential of AI to improve processes and practices used by universities and industry when developing and acquiring talent. AI could also potentially be used to remove biases from the decision processes used for recruitment, promotion, and advancement to leadership positions.

According to the World Economic Forum, only 22 percent of AI professionals in the world are female, resulting in a staggering gender gap to close. Nesta’s recently published Gender Diversity in AI Research report found that only 13.83 percent of authors in the field are women, and the proportion of AI papers co-authored by at least one woman has not improved since the 1990s. The report also claims that women are more likely to explore social and political impacts of AI as well as pose questions on AI ethics than their male counterparts, areas of research that are increasingly important in our world today.

Min Chen, VP and Chief Technology Officer APAC of LexisNexis.

Speakers also discussed ways gender balance may be recognized through education, mentorship and the utilization of AI. Dr Stefan Winkler of AI Singapore presented his organizations various AI programs, such as AI for Kids (AI4K) and the AI Apprenticeship Program (AIAP), which stimulate interest, encourage involvement and in the long term may help boost the AI population.

Siddharth Somasundaran, director of X0PA, a talent acquisition company that uses AI to automate the recruitment process, mentioned the use of algorithms and data science to reduce bias in recruiting.

Schemm spoke about the Elsevier Foundation’s various partnerships to boost girls and women’s involvement in the science community.

Min Chen, who leads a team of 200+ computer scientists and engineers in the Asia-Pacific region in her role as VP and CTO APAC for Elsevier’s sister company LexisNexis, mentioned the difficulty of tackling the underrepresentation of women in AI. Women make up just 20 percent of her overall team, and most of these women specialize in quality assurance roles, which are considered to be relatively more junior than engineering roles. However, these women are, given the opportunity to train to become data engineers through career-shifting program, allowing them to upskill into more advanced technical fields. Chen also mentioned the importance of mentoring women, as well as women becoming mentors and role models for others, thus providing opportunities to highlight women’s success to help them gain exposure within their company and the industry.

When asked how to ensure AI and technology-related jobs and careers are attractive for talented individuals, and particularly women, speakers returned to the leaky pipeline, unconscious bias and the importance of girl’s education and women’s involvement in STEM. Chen said more women can thrive with “strong sponsorship and senior management that really supports gender equality.” She added that women should never give up, and encouraged them to “speak up, and let the whole organization see you.”

The overall message to emerge from these often difficult discussions is that although the idea of a “silver bullet” might sound attractive, there is no single solution to tackling the ingrained issues that lie at the root of gender inequality. What is required is a consistent commitment across businesses, academia, governments and society to remain vigilant against bias and enact positive change. From setting up healthy and inclusive work environments to ensuring young girls have role models in STEM fields they can relate to, speakers expressed the hope that such efforts trigger a sustainable and enduring change that would benefit us all.

Chan Lai FungAfter the summit, Chan Lai Fung reflected on the significance of global conferences like the Gender Summit:

I am optimistic that with your commitment and continued advocacy, we will see more women in STEM, and also more women leaders in. If we keep at it, together we can make a meaningful contribution towards realizing the Gender Summit goals of removing gender bias, advancing gender equality in science, and applying understanding of gender issues for more effective research and innovation.

The Gender Summit

The Gender Summit, held throughout the world since 2011, serves as a forum for researchers, scientific institutions, policymakers and other stakeholders to discuss gender impact on scientific research and innovation. Founded by Dr. Elizabeth Pollitzer, Director of Portia, a British nonprofit gender in science organization, the summit aims to “make gender equality in science and research the norm.”

Elsevier has been a sponsor of the Gender Summit since the beginning.

Elsevier and gender diversity

The Gender Summit is one of many initiatives Elsevier supports to encourage women in science and the workplace. Elsevier’s first global report on gender and science, Gender in the Global Research Landscape, released 2017, utilized Elsevier’s analytical capabilities to view the world of research from a gender perspective. A new report on gender and global research will be released in 2020.

The Elsevier Foundation also sponsors a variety of programmes to support girls’ and women’s involvement in STEM, including the annual OWSD Award for early-career women researchers.

In addition, Elsevier is committed to achieving gender balance in the workplace, earning Level 1 of the EDGE Certification in 2016.


Written by

Yuhri Ishizaki

Written by

Yuhri Ishizaki

Yuhri Ishizaki is a Global Strategic Networks Associate at Elsevier, based in Tokyo. With a focus on the Asia Pacific, she builds relationships with research leaders to broaden influence and build trust within the science community. She has a strong interest in gender and women’s rights issues. She holds a degree in biomedical sciences from University College London (UCL).
Written by

Alice Atkinson-Bonasio

Written by

Alice Atkinson-Bonasio

Alice Atkinson-Bonasio is a technology writer with a particular interest in how digital technologies affect the education and scholarly research landscape. She has a master’s degree in Creative and Media Enterprises from the University of Warwick and regularly contributes to publications such as The Next Web, Wired, Ars Technica, Times Higher Education (THE) and Fast Company.


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