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How to support women and girls in science: Create safe spaces, break down stereotypes

Angelica Y. Yang - Philstar.com
How to support women and girls in science: Create safe spaces, break down stereotypes
This December 7, 2018 file photo from the DOST Science Education Institute shows students of Ligao National High School.
DOST SEI website

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines needs to do more to erase gender-biased stereotypes that discourage girls from becoming scientists, and support women who wish to pursue science careers.

It begins at an early age, when young girls receive toys that are deemed appropriate for them by their families.

"There is still a gender stereotype and I see that's still in a lot of families. It starts with...the toys you give boys and girls, like when you [choose to] give a girl feminine or 'kikay' stuff compared to toys that are more exploratory or [those that enhance] science background," Dr. Aletta Yñiguez, a marine scientist from UP Diliman, told Philstar.com

This kind of early introduction may prime girls into what they may or may not get into in the future, ultimately shaping their career paths. 

Dr. Gay Jane Perez, deputy director general of the Philippine Space Agency, observed there were a few women engineers who have worked on developing the country's satellites.

A fifth, or 15 out of 67 engineers who participated in seven major satellite projects were women, data showed. Some of these projects include the Diwata-1, Diwata-2 and Maya cube satellites. 

"Women are underrepresented in those teams that are developing our satellites. Now, when we are searching for the new team to develop new satellites, it's turning out to be the same. It looks like that's still the trend," Perez told Philstar.com in a mix of Filipino and English.

It's a different scenario, however, at the Department of Science and Technology's Industrial Technology Development Institute, where women researchers outnumber male researchers by 16%.

"Many women are now engaged in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) area, but we need more," ITDI Director Dr. Annabelle Briones told Philstar.com.

She shared that the ITDI observes gender equality, with women enjoying equal opportunities. 

Last year, the Philippines slipped down one notch to 17th place in terms of achieving gender parity, but has been able to close 78.4% of its gender gap to date, the World Economic Forum (WEF) said in its latest Global Gender Gap Report

The report monitors the progress of 150 countries in closing the gender gaps across economic opportunities, education, health and political leadership. 

Despite its lower rank, the Philippines' performance last year was the "second-best" in East Asia and Pacific, after New Zealand. 

"Not only has the Philippines virtually closed both its educational attainment and health and survival gaps, but it is also among the 18 countries in the world that have closed at least 79.5% of their economic participation and opportunity gaps," WEF said. 

Lack of role models

The world celebrated International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11 and the Philippines' DOST joined in the festivities. 

Hillary Diane Andales, who is taking up undergraduate studies in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was one of the speakers at the DOST event, which was livestreamed.

Speaking to Philstar.com, she noted that there weren't many Pinay scientist-role models whom she could emulate in the past. 

"I did not know a single Filipino who did astrophysics, physics or astronomy and it took me years until I learned, I found out about my first Filipina scientist and that was [astrophysicist] Reina Reyes," she said. 

When she was five, her mom kept telling her stories about Poland-born physicist Marie Curie, who became someone Andales looked up to. 

"Because I knew about her and that there was a woman out there who changed the world, I didn't really think of my being a girl as a problem [in] pursuing science. I didn't really see gender as a barrier because ever since I was young, I know there was a woman who did it, and who did it well," she said.

Andales was in twelfth grade when she made waves locally and internationally after emerging as the winner of the 2017 Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a global science communication competition for students aged 13 to 18 years old.

While she observed there is still a lack of Filipina scientist-role models in the country, she highlighted that efforts to bring them to the public sphere are making headway — for example, through "Pinoy Scientists", an online portal that humanizes the experiences of scientists and researchers based in the Philippines.

study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation found that female students in Swiss-German-speaking secondary schools strongly perceived the subjects math, physics and chemistry to be a "male domain" compared to the perception of their male counterparts. 

They made the conclusion after surveying 1,364 students. 

"Our results suggest that among female students a strong masculine image of math and science decreases the likelihood of choosing a STEM major at university," the researchers said in their study published in 2019. 

Safe spaces needed in Science

Lisa Paguntalan, executive director of the Philippines Biodiversity Conservation Foundation Inc., opened up about being harassed by men in higher positions outside of the scientific community, while she was doing her work.

"There are four times I encountered [this]. These people were in higher positions. They are touchy. When they're talking to you, they move too close and hold your hand. Sometimes they massage your hand...and I feel what they're doing is inappropriate. I felt that I was harassed," she told Philstar.com in Filipino.

Paguntalan, who has been practicing science for more than 20 years, also recounted an experience when she had to get a permit from a male official who moved too close to her during their meeting. According to her, a sexual harassment charge was filed by someone else against the official who eventually retired from his post.

"I know there were students and early-career wildlife biologists who also felt sexually harassed and abused. I felt that we were in a difficult position to fight against [the perpetuators] because the people involved are in a very high position," she said in Filipino.

Marine scientist Yñiguez pointed out that there were a few times when people she worked with outside of the academe made her feel uncomfortable. 

"On a few occasions, I've encountered men who are in the community or in agencies that I work with [and] they kind of size you up like they're assessing you as a female. And then, maybe [make] some not-so-appropriate comments especially with the looks, which they will not typically say if you're male," she said.

Yñiguez also noted there is still that general perception that women had to look or behave in a certain way, as she acknowledged that there were still some "chauvinistic tendencies" in Filipino culture.

But for her, Filipina scientists can hurdle these barriers if they show that they are knowledgable about the topic, and sincere. 

"We're still able to push forward and do our work as Filipina scientists whether in the academe or in those sorts of community environments where there can be some initial stereotyping. And eventually people will respond...If they see that you know what you're saying and you're sincere, then you will be able to work with them with no problem," Yñiguez said.

RELATED: In the defense of the environment: Women activists on the front lines

Support systems needed

Space agency leader Perez said there needs to be more support systems in place for all types of women scientists, especially those who are raising families while pursuing their careers. 

She suggested that there can be an institution which can partially fund the expenses of families travelling with women scientsts- a practice that may already be taking place abroad. 

For ITDI's Briones, it is important to educate young girls about the importance of STEM- and this starts in the classroom. "Science should be promoted in early childhood classrooms, creating an environment that promotes science," she said. 

Andales meanwhile called for more funding in science which will have an impact on the quality of education. 

"If we have a government who really sees the importance of science and science-based policy, then they're going to fund science more. In turn, we'll have colleges who have enough funds, who can hire very good teachers who are very inspiring."

"If we have more teachers, we'll have more students and then we'll have a good support system for these students who will seek mentorship," she added.

DEPARTMENT OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

GENDER EQUALITY IN THE PHILIPPINES

GENDER ISSUES

PHILIPPINE SPACE AGENCY

SCIENCE

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