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Women and Girls in Science: How the IAEA has Contributed to the Development of Scientists over the Years

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A group of staff in one of the chemistry laboratories of the Instituto de Asuntos Nucleares, Bogota, Colombia, with Sonia Nassif, the first woman employed as an IAEA expert, discusses radiochemical methods of separating nuclear isomers. A successful programme of work on the separation of nuclear isomers through the use of an intermediate organic compound was completed. (Photo: IAEA Archives/F0019-015. Credit: AGRACOL)

Science is a collaborative field that benefits from diverse perspectives and experience. And yet, a persistent gender gap exists: Women account for less than 30 per cent of the world’s scientists and researchers. Women are underrepresented in many scientific and research disciplines, and the nuclear field is no exception.

Through fellowships, training courses and scientific visits, the IAEA has provided opportunities to develop and expand access to nuclear science education, training and jobs for women and men. The annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science is an opportunity to spotlight initiatives to support the past, present and future careers of female scientists in the nuclear field.

Barriers, often beginning with early education, hinder girls and young women from entering fields in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Only 35 per cent of all higher education students enrolled in STEM subjects are women, according to research by UNESCO. Women’s choices are also influenced by social and cultural biases surrounding STEM disciplines. A study supported by UN Women shows that, in popular films, less than 12 per cent of characters with an identifiable STEM job were women.

Looking back

During the IAEA-supported research, a research assistant at the Zoology Department, University College of Nairobi, Kenya, analyses protein bands with a densitometer to investigate what factors in the insect blood in the gut and salivary glands control the development of the sleeping sickness parasite in 1974. (Photo: IAEA Archives/E0054-018)

Since its establishment in 1957, the IAEA has worked to support women and girls in science and to encourage their rise to leadership positions. The IAEA, through its technical cooperation programme, has supported about 55 000 fellowships across myriad disciplines, from nuclear engineering to radiochemistry. Fellowships help to strengthen the capacities of national nuclear institutions by supporting the development of new skills and competencies of young professionals, who subsequently return to their respective countries. Over the years, nearly 23 per cent of all fellows have been women, including Salag Dhababandana from Thailand and Maria Elena Fucugauchi De Santiago from Mexico, who were the first female fellows, in 1959.

The IAEA is working to improve this ratio and reach parity. “We are committed to increasing the number of women fellows. We count on the support of Member States, who nominate fellows to participate in our programmes,” said Martin Krause, Director at the IAEA’s Department of Technical Cooperation. “Together we can make a difference.”

Historically, the application of isotopes and radiation in food and agriculture have been the most common field of study for women participating in IAEA fellowships, accounting for nearly 25 per cent from 1959 to 2017, followed by radiation medicine and human health, and then by radiation safety and nuclear security.

The first woman engaged as an expert by the IAEA was Sonia Nassif of Argentina, who trained a group of young scientists in the use of radioisotope techniques in 1961. Since then, the IAEA has recruited women professionals to act as lecturers and experts in support of technical cooperation, including Rosalyn Sussman Yalow, co-winner of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for development of the radioimmunoassay technique. As early as 1971, Yalow was engaged in Agency activities, assisting in a mission in medical application of radioisotopes.

Looking forward

Under the Agency's fellowship programme, Annelie Salo of Finland makes a separation of yttrium 90 in a milk sample in the IAEA laboratory for the analysis of environmental radioactivity at Seibersdorf, Austria, in February 1962. (Photo: IAEA Archives/E0001-021)

The IAEA continues to promote women in the nuclear field and to inspire younger generations to explore educational and professional opportunities in science and technology through a range of activities.

The IAEA is highlighting the stories of female scientists at the Agency in its drive for a more inclusive workforce, where both women and men can equally thrive and contribute. The IAEA is committed to achieving gender parity — 50 per cent women and 50 per cent men — at all levels of the professional and higher categories by 2025. In 2020, it adopted measures to create more balanced representation of women in all departments and to encourage more women to apply for vacancies. These efforts have resulted in about 58 per cent of all job offers in the professional and higher categories, including many STEM-related jobs, being offered to and accepted by women. To check the current vacancies, please click here.

To support the next generation of women scientists in nuclear science and technology, the IAEA launched the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme in 2020.  The first 100 students from around the world have been awarded scholarships to help close the gender gap in nuclear science and technology.

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