Women in science: how to preserve a “necessary diversity”?

Women in science: how to preserve a “necessary diversity”?

“Far fewer young women want to get involved in science.” Like Yasmine Belkaid, new general director of the Institut Pasteur, several researchers and directors of research institutes seek to promote “necessary diversity” in the scientific community.

Before her, only one woman had held her position since the creation of the Institute by Louis Pasteur in 1887. Having just arrived, this renowned scientist, whose research is focused on microbes and the immune system, says she wants to contribute to ” change a culture.

Born in Algeria, Yasmine Belkaid knew she wanted to “do science” from the age of 6. “When I set foot in a lab, I felt at home,” says the 55-year-old scientist, during a meeting organized at the Pasteur Institute with other women at the head of research institutes. research in the field of biology, on the occasion of International Women’s Day on March 8.

His son was born during his thesis. “I asked my thesis director for a one-year extension who refused, telling me that it was +my problem+“, she remembers. “Having a child and doing science was then considered a cardinal sin“.

Moving to the United States to complete a postdoctoral internship in the biology of intracellular parasites, she obtained various management positions there.

I had no plans, I never envisioned myself in +leadership+“, testifies the one who wants these positions obtained thanks to life opportunities to now be obtained “on merit”.

I didn’t see myself in a position of +power+ at all either.“, says Bana Jabri, professor at the University of Chicago and future director of the Imagine Institute in Paris, at the forefront of the fight against genetic diseases. “I was driven by a single passion: that of science“.

She also remembers with bitterness having to choose between research and medicine at the birth of her first daughter, while she was still an intern. “I had asked to join a research program, it was a complete refusal, I had to leave medicine“, she regrets.

“Loss of trustworthy”

Same experience for Fabiola Terzi, director of the Necker Institute for sick children in Paris. “I had to make a choice between the clinic and research, I was made to understand that I could not do both even though I saw lots of male lab directors.“, deplores this Italian.

Have things changed in recent years? “Yes, nowadays in international symposia, we have no problem having an identical number of men and women with the same level of excellence“, particularly appreciates Bana Jabri.

There are changes because in the selection committees, we are more attentive to giving positions to women“, welcomes Florence Niedergang, director of the Cochin Institute.

Despite these advances, scientists remain worried about the future: “I feel a loss of confidence and hope among young people and especially young women, the profession is becoming less desirable“, warns Yasmine Belkaid. “In science, interrupting a research program is irreversible“, she emphasizes. “If we want to keep women in these positions, we will have to take measures“.

Among the ideas mentioned: places in crèche which would be automatically allocated to women scientists, after the birth of a child. Or getting help from technicians in their lab.

At the Pasteur Institute, one of Yasmine Belkaid’s first actions was the appointment of Mariana Mesel-Lemoine, a director in charge of diversity, equity and inclusion.

As a post-doctoral fellow at the research institute, I myself lacked female role models.“, confides this new leader who does not want to deprive herself of the “talents of tomorrow”.

Only 30% of team leaders at the Research Institute are women.