Creating an international network of female scientists and raising the profile of women in science are the goals of a worldwide system of awards co-sponsored by L’ Oréal and UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
“It’s perceived in all countries that women are not fit for science and that science is not fit for women,” says Francoise Rivière, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture.
The awards are an attempt to flip that perception on its head, “The world needs science and science needs women” – that is the program’s slogan. “Not to have enough women in science reduces the opportunities for science to advance.” says Marie-Josée Lamothe, vice-president, chief marketing and corporate communications officer of L’Oréal Canada.
The UN body and the largest beauty-products firm in the world joined forces in 1998 to create an award, “For Women in Science.” A jury of eminent scientists, including Nobel Laureates, celebrate five researchers annually, one from every continent or region, for their lifetime achievements. It is the first international distinction for women in science. Eugenia Kumacheva, a chemist from the University of Toronto whose discoveries have wide application, including the fight against cancer, is the sole Canadian winner; she received the award in 2009.
In 2000, L’Oréal and UNESCO began offering 15 fellowships each year to promising young female scientists, doctorate or post-doctorate, from underdeveloped countries, giving them the opportunity to specialize in a field of their choice. The winners help create cross-cultural networks among female scientists.
A program of national and regional fellowships, created jointly with UNESCO national commissions, has recognized more than 1,000 women scientists around the world, and allowed for a wide network of female scientists to develop. In Canada, the L’Oréal-UNESCO Excellence in Research fellowships are given to two women each year to support their post-doctoral research. The L’Oréal-UNESCO Mentoring fellowships enable doctoral students to pursue their research project and offers them mentoring training. More than 30 women have been recognized since the first Canadian awards were given out in 2003.
“The idea is to ask these women to work on things that will help society progress, urgent issues like the aging population, global warming, the extinction of species, the access to water, or fighting pandemics,” says Ms. Lamothe. “These women are helping to contribute to the promise for a better world.”