Testimonials: International Day of Women and Girls in Science


While less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women, and this rate plummets when one considers the positions of responsibility in the laboratories, how can we inspire future generations, arouse vocations and at the same time raise awareness of this problem within the scientific community? For two years, the ESPCI Paris - PSL has had an equality officer. Objective: to analyze the data related to gender at the school and in the laboratories in order to propose an action plan to improve the situation.
On the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science organized by the UN, we gave the floor to three of them: Valérie Pichon is deputy director of the CBI laboratory, professor of analytical chemistry at Sorbonne University, Hélène Lecomte is an ESPCI engineer, currently in charge of scientific mediation at the Laboratory of Climate and Environmental Sciences, Gisella Vetere is a professor of neuroscience at the school, head of the "Cerebral codes and circuits connectivity" team within the Brain Plasticity Unit.

From left to right Gisella Vetere, Valérie Pichon and Hélène Lecomte

What are you currently working on?

Valérie Pichon (VP) :
I am working on the development of methods and tools to analyze various molecules in complex samples to meet societal needs related to health, environment, safety but also to meet the needs of industry.

Hélène Lecomte (HL): I am a student at the Climate and Environmental Sciences Laboratory. I help with scientific mediation and the organization of cultural projects related to climate sciences.

Gisella Vetere (GV) : With my group we are studying how our emotions can influence and modify over time the representation that we have of a certain memory. We are digging into the brain to find the pathway of storage and recall of traumatic memories.

What is the most motivating aspect of your job?

VP: Training young people in research and digging up new projects.

HL: Working with a lot of research teams, always discovering new scientific knowledge and acting to make science related to climate change accessible. I also have the opportunity to meet researchers who are fascinating.

GV: The possibility to question all the time my beliefs. Beliefs that have been built up throughout my life, which constitute my body of knowledge and are therefore difficult to undermine. This tangible possibility, that science gives me, to disassemble in order to reconstruct in a more appropriate way the rules of the game of life, makes my job electrifying.

Have you always wanted to be a "woman of science"? How did this come about?

GV: I have always looked with respect and admiration at the figures of scientists that school first, then books and television showed me. Instead, it took me much longer to tear to pieces that idea of the white-haired, serious, white-coated male scientist, to look behind the cover and find an entirely personal vision of a scientist. A version that could be outside the box, unique and all my own.

VP: At first I wanted to be a veterinarian in the countryside but my "close family environment" at the time made me understand that it was not a profession for a woman so I turned to science certainly because I had some aptitudes!

HL: My parents had subscribed to Science et vie junior, my father is a science fiction fan, and I devoured all the science documentaries I could. I grew up wanting to work at MIT (aha), so yeah, it came to me pretty early. As I grew up I realized that in this world that I idealized, there wasn’t really a place for me, a role model for women. This made me want to go even more, to go where I was not expected. Then I got tired of it…

February 11 is International Day of Women and Girls in Science, what does this mean to you?

VP: A necessity but also sadness that we are still in the position of having to organize a special day.

GV: Everyday for me is a day to get inspired by women that are and were changing the way we see the world. Everyday, in my spare time, I am listening and reading about females that, in different fields, made a difference. It is motivating and energizing to know how much I can learn from women that didn’t get enough recognition for their work and their art. And I try to apply it on the science field as best as I can.

It’s a subject that is generally forgotten all year long. This day reminds me that it is the day to highlight a situation that a whole part of the scientific community lives, on a daily basis. And that every other day, when a woman scientist dares to talk about her situation, she is called an "extremist", a "mood breaker", a "feminazi" (or just a feminist, for people for whom it is an insult). It makes me angry, it upsets me to see many of my friends discouraged, tired of their experiences as scientists, or who simply don’t even feel concerned about being a "woman in science" when they are part of the target community. But the box we imagine is too small to accommodate us all. I guess.

In your daily life, what does it mean to be a scientist?

VP: Maybe curiosity, a certain openness to many things and a need to analyze and understand things for oneself.

GV: To discuss, share ideas, put doubts to our believes, try to reinvent our thoughts. This means to me to be a scientist and I feel lucky I can call this my job. Lucky, even though I had to work hard to make this my life’s work.

HL: For me, being a scientist on a daily basis means being torn between everything I love about science, i.e. learning, discovering, being curious, working in a team, and everything that weighs on me: the social environment related to science, a predominantly male and macho world. I share this point of view with many of my friends. For us, being scientists, being students in engineering school has meant fighting against a system that tells us that we are not legitimate. It doesn’t stop us from loving what we do, from loving science, from wanting to continue working in science, from having good experiences elsewhere. But it discourages some, it makes others give up.

Do you have an anecdote to tell about your education/career?

GV: Shortly after I moved to Paris, having won a position as a professor and lab head, a dream for which I fought a lifetime of getting, I was asked by a female professor if I had moved here for the love of a man. I wonder if the same question had been asked of a man in the same situation as me.
I often wonder, if the things that happen to me, could happen to a man.

VP: An amusing anecdote about the place of women in science. About 10 years ago (I had just been appointed professor after a 15-year career), an expert, present as I was at a research expertise committee at an industrial company, came to ask me if there was coffee planned during the meeting. His question seemed logical to him because I was the only woman present at this meeting and therefore inevitably the assistant in charge of the coffee! I told him that I didn’t know anything about it, which finally made him angry at the incompetence of this assistant... So, I waited for the turn of the table to introduce myself, looking him in the eyes, in which I could fortunately see a certain embarrassment.... fortunately!

HL: The most powerful moment for me was the organization of PC Témoigne, which created a sorority group within the ESPCI, women scientists who meet to share together specific difficulties related to their status. One of the most rewarding and life-changing experiences I’ve had the opportunity to participate in.

In your career/curriculum, have you encountered difficulties related to your gender?

VP: Yes, on many, many occasions: inappropriate comments (we would call it moral harassment today), borderline behavior, delays/difficulties in promotion.... one can never say for sure but... The difficulty also as a woman to manage foreign students from a different culture where the place of women is much worse than in France. Getting accepted at the beginning as a team leader by some men who are older than you... The feeling of not being listened to with as much attention as if I were a man in certain committees.

HL: I would even say that my experience in science is entirely a result of my gender. I’m lucky that I don’t have other oppressions that would have made my experience different. What I mean by this is that apart from the "visible" cases of discrimination, which it is relatively accepted to point to, there are specific and limiting conditions of existence to being a woman in science. Many of my female friends in science have never felt legitimate or entitled to be there. What’s to blame? No or very few diverse representations are offered. How can we dare to feel entitled to make mistakes in science when we are told in books, movies, music, that women are stupid? But that’s what research is all about: making mistakes. However, as a woman, we prefer to check a thousand times what we say, even if it’s just to carry out tests, so as not to taint the representation of women even more. We have to prove, in addition to our own competence, that of the general group of women. We are reminded far too often: before being scientists, we are women. Women with a brain, but also, obviously, a body. Evolving in the scientific world as a woman is to eat rotten remarks, dehumanizing jokes, sometimes harassment or aggressions, sometimes not. Each woman scientist’s experience is unique but all of them can be linked to the existing dynamics in our society.

GV: During my years in college, biology was a "girl thing." The vast majority of students in my course were women. My experiences in the lab, showed me a world still dominated by women. Also, having been fortunate enough to have a female PI, gave me the impression that all this hype about gender inequality was overblown. I learned the hard way, how blind I was. When you move up a rung, and percentages magically crumble. Now I need to catch up on, to understand and to do, to be able, in my own small way, to help change things around.

What message would you like to send to the younger generation, or even to your colleagues/classmates?

VP: Resist, it’s worth it, but the fight is far from over for the place of women in science and in society in general! Our education has led us to limit ourselves in our possibilities, to doubt our potential, to constantly question ourselves and to doubt that we deserve certain positions. This is what we have to fight against. We have an important role as mothers in the education of our daughters (and sons), to play in order not to reproduce or at least maintain the system. Men are especially responsible in all of this for maintaining a system that suits them!

HL: To the isolated women scientists who suffer from this, get together. Together it is possible to share our experiences and to feel understood and supported. It is a help that can change everything. To everyone else, don’t feel personally attacked when women come together to talk about their experiences. Look at the makeup of the labs, the classes, look at the number of female professors, the "big scientists". Getting together, talking about our experiences, is just succeeding in making experiences exist that are too often discredited.

GV: I have so much to learn from the new generation, girls and boys who do not fit in, who are agitated, who do so much to show a new image of society, who make noise.
For my generation it is more difficult to unhinge time-honoured patterns and concepts.
Women lack examples to aspire to. Our brains work by gathering information from outside, forming patterns from that information, and then comparing new information to those patterns. My society didn’t give me enough examples of female scientists to create this pattern, and I always saw them as exceptions, one-offs, unattainable careers. The work we have to do to convince ourselves first, that we can do it, takes a lot of energy. For now, my advice is not to be discouraged. But someday I hope that this advice is no longer needed.