In conversation with four leading women scientists

8 March 2022

In celebration of International Women’s Day, Croucher Foundation spoke to four leading women scientists in Hong Kong about gender equality in Hong Kong science and academia. How are women faring in their science careers? What is holding them back? And what can be done about it? Our panelists shared their thoughts on the challenges and experiences of women scientists in Hong Kong.

Our four panelists are:

Professor Kathryn Cheah, Chair Professor of Biochemistry at The University of Hong Kong

Professor Nancy Ip, Director of the State Key Laboratory of Molecular Neuroscience at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Professor Sham Mai Har, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Choh-Ming Li Professor of Biomedical Sciences

Professor Vivian Yam, Chair Professor of Chemistry, The University of Hong Kong

How would you describe the representation of, and opportunities for, women in Hong Kong science?

According to our four leading women scientists, women today are participating well in the early stages of their scientific research careers, but then that success seems to stall for some of them. “As you go higher there are fewer and fewer women,” says Professor Sham.

Professor Cheah adds, “At an undergraduate level the admissions are 50/50, men and women. It’s during the career progression that things change.” Moreover, she says, Hong Kong is lagging the US, Europe, and the UK in terms of the number of women holding senior academic and science positions.

Overall, women are underrepresented in many STEM fields, according to Professor Ip. “There is still a considerable way to go before we achieve gender equity.” She says in Hong Kong there is a disparity at the faculty level in all the STEM fields.

Professor Yam offers a different opinion. She thinks Hong Kong – an international, metropolitan city, where East meets West – is not doing too badly with regards to opportunities for women, and this has helped to foster a sense of inclusion. For example, Yam says, “I chair the Women Chemists’ Committee of the Chinese Chemical Society, and we have a lot of activities to promote women in science. I’m also associated with the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science community, and serve as the President of the International Organisation for Chemical Sciences in Development (IOCD) which was founded at UNESCO in 1981 to promote the pursuit and application of the chemical sciences for sustainable development and economic growth.

What are the costs of gender discrimination or imbalance?

Cheah believes one significant cost of gender imbalance is its potential to undermine Hong Kong’s reputation, particularly the international rankings of its universities. The fact that there is a gender imbalance “changes how institutions look at you in terms of partnerships”.

Ip takes the argument further. “The continued gender discrimination and imbalance in academic institutions and science organisations is highly detrimental to society.” Organisations and academic departments that are not inclusive miss out on a broad range of intellectual input and diversity in ideas and thoughts. These, she says, are critical elements for creating new knowledge and sparking new discoveries. “Studies have found that in environments with gender equity, women experience less negative stereotyping, receive greater opportunities and support, and are involved in decision-making.”

The costs of gender discrimination are huge, according to Yam. “Throwing away 50 per cent of the best talents rather than [using] them is a stupid thing to do.”

Are the challenges that women face in science any different from those faced by women in business, industry or other professional fields?

One of the biggest challenges is the lack of a family friendly work environment, which particularly disadvantages women. Women who begin an academic career in science struggle to progress because there’s so little flexibility when it comes to taking a break to have a family. Cheah explains: “The tenure clock starts when you become an assistant professor.” So, if women want a family, they have to juggle the competing demands of their biological clock with the research faculty’s tenure clock. “Without tenure you don’t have the freedom to undertake long-term, cutting-edge research.”

Another challenge for women is the long hours. Yam says it seems acceptable for women to work long hours in industries such as finance, for example, because they are earning a good income, whereas scientists are viewed a little like artists. “[People] cannot understand why you need to work such long hours, instead of being home with your children.” It seems they don’t understand that a woman may want to pursue her passion, just as a man may want to.

Sham adds that women tend not to fare well in the fields of innovation and entrepreneurship, suggesting that these skills have not been encouraged in the past. “[An] entrepreneurial spirit requires cultivation and encouragement … Because of that women and men don’t take such risks equally.”

Women are well represented in undergraduate programmes, yet they are less represented higher levels of academia and science. Why is that?

Studies have shown that women drop out at the postgraduate or postdoctoral level because there’s a lack of support, a lack of role models, and fewer opportunities, says Ip. Without institutional support, women scientists are often disadvantaged, both when they take maternity leave and when they then spend less time on their research because of ongoing family commitments. This directly affects their ability to achieve tenure and promotions.

Sham agrees. “Men and women both face choices throughout their careers, but women tend to have greater … responsibilities at home, and that often impacts their willingness … to take on professional responsibilities.” This can hinder their career progression. She qualifies this by adding that these are choices women make freely because it’s part of the accepted social structure.

Women tend to be less assertive, too. Cheah: “It’s alright for men to be assertive and voice opinions” but a woman may be regarded as being aggressive. Because of this lack of assertiveness, Hong Kong universities don’t always consciously include women in decision or policy making processes. Inevitably, if they aren’t consulted or represented then opportunities for them in leadership positions become limited.

Yam thinks that the fields of chemistry and biology aren’t doing too badly when it comes to having women represented in the higher ranks, but the same can’t be said for engineering, physics, and maths. Whatever the discipline, though, she says, “the ‘leaking pipeline’ people talk about is a reality.”

Our four leading women in science all agree that women need to accept that they will have to work long hours – which is not easy when you are also taking care of a family.

What kinds of affirmative actions are needed?

Women will face cultural challenges and a lack of mentorship during their careers, but says Sham, they also need to be more confident and assertive.

Hong Kong has no policy instruments or recommendations to ensure women are given every opportunity to be interviewed. This is largely left to the discretion of selection committees. Therefore, says Cheah, “we need policies to ensure that selection committees are gender balanced, and that they assess and interview women … [and] they have the opportunity to compete.” Better mentoring for women would help as well, she says.

On a more logistical level, Yam says that The University of Hong Kong has baby feeding rooms and other provisions for families; and it is a founding member of HeForShe. “But there is always more we can do. For example, the National Natural Science Foundation of China has the Excellent Young Scientists Fund, which gives awards to male scientists under the age of 38 and female scientists under the age of 40 to recognise that their careers may take long due often to maternity leave and family duties".

Ip offers some further practical advice: “To prevent women from dropping out at the postgraduate or postdoctoral level, departments can provide more positive feedback to their students, increase visibility of women in male-dominated STEM fields, invite women industry leaders to give talks, implement and strengthen mentorship programmes and peer support for female students, implement mandatory diversity training for all faculty and staff to directly address false stereotypes, and establish policies to ensure equal opportunities irrespective of gender.”

She also thinks “women are vital for recruiting and training the next generation of women scientists. As teachers, mentors, and role models, women [can] dismantle false stereotypes, inspire young women to follow in their footsteps, instill confidence, and provide guidance on navigating the obstacles of a STEM career.”

Can you describe or give examples of unconscious gender bias in science and academia?

Maybe girls are socially conditioned early in life to choose the life sciences rather than maths and physics, or maybe it is a lack of confidence, says Cheah. This could be an unconscious preference as much as something arising from within the academic community.

Yam adds to Cheah’s comment, saying it is a myth that girls are not as good at maths or science as boys. “Still, these myths discourage girls, even at a very young age, from pursuing careers in these fields, and we need to change that.”

Sham says it is human nature to choose one of the “usual suspects” when we are seeking help, or when we are, for example, forming a committee. But she says this means “the successful ones become more successful” and this is “a form of unconscious bias”; we need to look further afield for candidates who don’t come to mind right away.

In a slightly different take, Ip says she has been fortunate to have studied and worked in supportive environments and has not experienced gender bias in her career. Because of this, she says, “I have strived to build a nurturing and supporting environment for my students and staff to help them reach their full potential irrespective of their gender.”

Who has inspired or mentored you in your scientific and academic career?

All four women have been inspired by many different people. For Sham, it is both men and women who have influenced her. “Male colleagues have given me many opportunities and a lot of trust.” Interestingly, she adds, some women colleagues have not always been as supportive of other women as you might think. “[I]t’s not an automatic thing.”

It is Dame Anne McLaren, a leading figure in the field of developmental and reproductive biology, who inspired Cheah. McLaren’s work led to breakthroughs with human in vitro fertilisation, as well as her significant contribution to the development of the UK guidelines for work and research on human embryos. “I first met her when I was a lecturer at HKU … She was an extremely wise and supportive mentor in an understated way.” Among other things, McLaren introduced Cheah to people she felt would make good research connections; and she supported Cheah’s change in research direction. “Importantly, she understood the kind of flexibility and unique support woman scientists needed, in the international arena and especially in a developing research community like Hong Kong.”

Yam’s inspiration came from a high school biology teacher. “She was teaching until just before giving birth to her twins. She taught us to love what you do, and to have a passion and respect for it, and that you can make it work if it’s not just a job.”

“Professor Richard Zigmond, my mentor at Harvard Medical School, played a huge part in my development into an independent investigator” says Ip. “He instilled the importance of strong scientific ethics and values, which are essential qualities for a scientist. Dr George Yancopoulos, my mentor at Regeneron, a biotechnology company, taught me the value of taking risks both in life and in research.” Ip also gives praises Dr Rita Levi-Montalcini, the eminent neuroscientist and Nobel laureate who, she says, has been an immense source of inspiration for her.

What advice do you have for male colleagues who want see better gender balance in science?

The women each have some thoughtful advice for their male colleagues.

Sham: “Do what you can to provide mentorship to women from the most junior levels on up.” She asks men to be considerate of women and encourages them to be empathetic about the special challenges women may be facing.

Cheah: “Senior management, mostly male in Hong Kong, can be more inclusive in including women in strategy planning, policy making, and selection committees and in their consultations generally on directions in academia.”

Yam: “Be aware of unconscious bias and develop your ability and inclusiveness to work with people regardless of gender or cultural background.” She recommends that men develop cultural competence when it comes to women’s issues.

Ip: “We cannot solve the issue of gender disparity without the support of male colleagues. They need to recognise gender bias and understand its negative impact, not only on women but society as a whole. They must join us in advocating for positive change.” Ip believes that it is only with the total commitment of everyone that women will achieve equal opportunity, representation, and recognition in science.

Professors Cheah, Ip, Sham and Yam are recipients of the Croucher Senior Research Fellowship. For more information on this and the Foundation’s other funding schemes supporting students and scientists at different career stages click here

To find out about the UN International Women’s Day and it’s 2022 sustainability theme click here

Professor Kathryn Cheah, Chair Professor of Biochemistry at The University of Hong Kong

Professor Nancy Ip, Director of the State Key Laboratory of Molecular Neuroscience at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology

Professor Sham Mai Har, Pro-Vice-Chancellor of The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Choh-Ming Li Professor of Biomedical Sciences

Professor Vivian Yam, Chair Professor of Chemistry, The University of Hong Kong