Where the spark started
Adeeba Kamarulzaman (Immediate Past President): I went to a premier all-girls school in Malaysia, designed to emphasize STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education and, therefore, we had excellent science teachers. I particularly remember my chemistry and physics teachers.
Sharon Lewin (President): I had brilliant science teachers in high school. I always loved the precision of science … how you could measure, quantify and predict outcomes. That’s what inspired me. Ultimately, I did medicine because I wanted a balance with science that was directly relevant to humanity.
Beatriz Grinsztejn (President-Elect): Since medical school, I’ve been captivated by the generation of scientific evidence and its impact on client care. My pivotal moment was during my residence training in infectious diseases in Rio de Janeiro in 1985. It was the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in Brazil, and I was involved in the care of a person with AIDS. This deeply impacted me, not just due to the challenges of clinical management of this new disease, but also in relation to disclosure, partners and lack of family support in a highly discriminatory context.
Navigating the challenges
Adeeba: The biggest challenge is juggling family life and career. Unfortunately, the timing of when you are at the most intense phase of your career is usually when you’re starting a family. I was fortunate to have a supportive partner and an extended family who provided support as the children were growing up. Working in a patriarchal society like Malaysia was also at times a challenge. Foremost would be breaking through the old boys’ network. Overcoming this involves being persistent and resilient and making sure that your voice is constantly heard until they can no longer ignore you.
Sharon: I think the biggest challenge I faced was raising a family while building a career in science, which is a full-time job. I really wanted to spend time with my children and my family, but at the same time, I knew that a great level of commitment was required to establish myself scientifically. I managed this by learning to delegate, learning not to feel that I needed to control everything, and accepting that not everything is going to be perfect all the time. I was also surrounded by an amazing support network: my family, my friends, my husband and many others.
Beatriz: Navigating the scientific landscape as a woman in a region where machismo prevails is a persistent challenge. My approach has been to face one day at a time. Being a lesbian woman compounded the challenges of LGBTQIAPN+phobia in my professional environment. Joining Fiocruz, a research institution under the Brazilian Ministry of Health, has been pivotal: it actively promotes democracy and prioritizes diversity, inclusion and equity. Balancing my career with motherhood was another significant challenge. I dedicated quality time to my daughters, bringing them on my work-related travels, which integrated them into my professional life.
The importance of female scientists in the HIV response
Adeeba: Firstly, it simply increases the pool of scientists working in the response. Secondly, I think we bring a different kind of sensibility to the response. For example, I believe there are differences in caregiving style and empathy between men and women. Thirdly, in certain regions, young women and girls constitute nearly half of those who newly acquire HIV and, therefore, it makes sense to have female scientists who can bring a gendered lens to research and services affecting women.
Sharon: I think the HIV response has been a leader in gender equity since before anyone even spoke about it. I remember being on organizing committees for HIV conferences where there was a focus on ensuring gender equality and geographical representation. This was before the concept of DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] existed, let alone concepts such as balanced panels. I think that the HIV response has been an enabling and empowering environment for women scientists and clinicians to establish their careers. That was especially true 20 or 30 years ago.
Beatriz: Females bring a diversity to the scientific community that ensures a richer array of perspectives and approaches to drive innovation and comprehensive solutions. Gender-sensitive research is paramount in addressing the vulnerabilities and challenges faced by women in the HIV epidemic. Shedding light on gender disparities leads to more effective prevention strategies, treatment options and support systems tailored to the needs of women.
Mentors and role models for the next generation
Adeeba: Traditionally, until recently, female scientists, even accomplished ones, are less visible. Despite attempts to narrow the gender gap for women in STEM through programmes such as the Athena Swan Charter, the gap persists; men still outnumber women 2 to 1 in the scientific workforce and, on average, have more productive careers and accumulate more impact. Here’s an interesting analysis of historical gender inequalities: link.
Sharon: Mentors and role models are incredibly important. There’s that adage: if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. I think we need all sorts of mentors, not just women as scientists, but mentors from different sexual orientations, disability and other points of diversity.
Beatriz: Throughout my journey in HIV research, mentors have provided guidance, shared insights and offered support. Their wisdom shaped my professional trajectory and instilled confidence and resilience in the face of obstacles unique to female scientists. Witnessing successful women in science breaks down barriers and encourages a sense of belonging, inspiring the upcoming generation to pursue their aspirations and believe that we are key agents to build up scientific evidence committed to tackling gender inequities.
Aspirations for upcoming female scientists
Adeeba: I hope that we manage to narrow the gap so that female scientists are celebrated because they are great scientists and not because they are great female scientists.
Sharon: I would like the next generation of female scientists to grow up feeling that they can do anything, that it’s not ever an issue if they’re a woman or a man, that they are in a work environment that allows them to spend time with their young family and still be able to achieve. I hope this is not even going to be a question for the next generation of female scientists.
Beatriz: I hope that the next generation of women scientists will excel individually and collectively push the boundaries of knowledge. I am committed to creating a supportive environment that nurtures their talents, offering mentorship and guidance. Ultimately, my goal is to witness a cohort of women scientists who serve as role models, creating a ripple effect in the scientific community.