The ‘Man Thing’: why seizing the opportunity to celebrate women in Science matters


Karima, my story for Nina


by Karima H’mimsa

100 years ago Albert Einstein revealed his General Theory of Relativity.  2015 is therefore the 100th anniversary of the unveiling of E=mc^2.  Coupled with the 17th L’Oréal -UNESCO “For Women in Science ”  held on March 18, where the smartest women in science are recognised, I thought it would be interesting to share some perspectives with Nina in terms of women needing to move beyond typical gender roles, so as to fully embrace our capacity to work by accepting all career opportunities the 21st century has to offer us.

What catalysed these thoughts was a seminar I attended recently in London. In this ‘Women in Science’ event, we discussed elegant equations along with the importance of science and development.  Discussions were animated and I was very much engaged. This got me to thinking about my days of doing Science in high school: why was it that in those days I saw Triple Science as a ‘man thing’?

If we think science, we visualize men like Newton, Lagrange, Einstein, Hawking and Cooper. When we are asked to visualise a professor, again most of us will think of a man.  However, should we be asked to imagine someone who works in nursing, a woman is more likely to spring into mind? There are no two ways about it, even though I know rationally that women are now represented  in virtually all career fields,  I still seem to associate women with art, culture or ‘something with people’… and I know that in terms of these generalised gender career associations I am not alone.  The key question is, how embedded are these associations are at school level. Do they still influence the choices our young girls make?

Education is very important because it builds the future. As the mother of a sixteen year old girl I know it needs to be the weapon of choice for her in terms of forging the right kind of future. Education of course does not just solely develop the girl. It has been proven that by educating girls,

society as a whole benefits[1]. Girls become decision makers, and comfortable with climbing career ladders that lead to higher positions in society after finishing school or university; a familiarity that in past generations has been very much reserved for men.

Rajdaâ Cherkaoui el Moursli

Rajdaâ Cherkaoui el Moursli

The aim of the Women in Science event is to reward, but also to change perceptions; so that the up and coming generation is able to make the right individual and educational choices based on positive role models. For example, when we think about scientists we should think of award winner Rajaâ Cherkaoui el Moursli (Morocco), one of the 5 women who received the For Women in Science award this year. Rajaa wants to raise the level of scientific research in her country and improve healthcare by developing the first Master’s degree in medical physics. She has made ​​a significant contribution to the discovery of the Higgs particle (think how heat can be converted into electricity or develop materials that renew damaged nerve tissue).  How important is this role modelling? Well, since the Nobel Prize for Physics was established in 1901, only two women have received the prize. In both cases these were shared with men: Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963. Women are indispensable in science. However, only 30% of the scientists are woman. These kind of statistics make it frighteningly clear how important it is to enjoy celebrations such as that on 18th March in Paris. You may be interested to know, that in the seventeen years Women in Science has existed, more than 2,000 women have received a scholarship or award. Every five years, a jury grants scholarships to fifteen promising science talents and awards five women who change the world through their work.

The world has acknowledged the power of Arab women as catalysts of change, awarding the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize to Tawakel Karman. She is the first Yemeni, the first Arab woman, and the youngest recipient of this honour. It would be great to see this impetus directed into the fields of science also – Nobel Prize for Physics maybe?

According to a report from the VU (University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands), boys in high school are better in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects than girls. This directly contrasts with countries as Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan and UAE -where the superiority of girls in the field of scientific academic achievements are statistically higher. The report states: the culture in which you grew up will affect your brain development. It’s all in your mind set.

Ultimately, while the decision to work is clearly is guided by an individual’s preferences, the high rates of female unemployment observed in the MENA region indicate the importance of other ‘societal’ influences also. Based on the exciting statistics above, surely now is the time for Arab women to embrace their natural affiliation with science (which is also has historical precedence in a region celebrated for scientific achievement).

Coming back to my story… in my adolescence science and I were not friends. The only related discipline I graduated in was biology. My interest in science didn’t start developing until many years later. As the famous footballer Johan Cruijf (also known of his grammatically incorrect sayings!) said: You start to understand it when it gets through to you. I very much hope that I have got through to you, my patient readers, that science really isn’t a man thing (and never has been!).



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