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leah mclaren

A few weeks ago it was declared "a great moment for women" when the actress Patricia Arquette briefly interrupted the Academy Award's annual orgy of killer heels and tortured collarbones to say that women everywhere should receive equal pay for equal work. Arquette was accepting an Oscar for playing a long-suffering single mom in the wonderful film Boyhood, and while I applaud both her performance and her speech, in the context of Hollywood, it was the political equivalent of watching someone trying to mop up an oil spill with a wet wipe.

If what you crave is inspiration for girls and women, the L'Oréal-UNESCO Awards for Women in Science – presented in a ceremony at Paris-Sorbonne University earlier this week – is truly where it's at. When I am crowned Empress of Everything (shouldn't be long now, what with the dragons getting bigger everyday), my first decree will be that, instead of the Oscars, 50-million households around the world must tune into these awards and watch five kick-ass female scientific geniuses exalted for their work.

Never mind the fact you haven't heard of them. These are women who have toiled in quiet obscurity, in heavily male-dominated fields, often having their ideas dismissed, their hunches ignored, until one day, boom, a breakthrough so startling the conservative academic establishment is obliged to sit up and take note. You don't know their names, they are not big – or even on – Twitter, but they are changing our world, one cell, polymer and super-massive black hole at a time, and for that we should all be dazzled beyond reason.

This year, the winners are Professor Thaisa Bergmann, a Brazillian physicist and astronomer who knows more about in black holes than almost anyone else on the planet; Professor Dame Carol Robinson, a British chemist who invented an entirely new field of physical chemistry; Professor Molly Shoichet, a Canadian chemical engineer who is working with stem cells to help repair damaged human spinal cords; Professor Rajaa Cherkaoui El Moursli, a Moroccan physicist who helped discover the Higgs Boson particle; and Professor Yi Xie, a Chinese inorganic chemist who is doing groundbreaking work in harnessing materials for sustainable energy.

These women are real-life feminist superheros, and the best part is, unlike all the actresses, reality stars and "role models" in Hollywood, they don't need our veneration or approval to exist. They are self-contained, truth-seeking missiles for whom gender is almost entirely incidental to their mind-blowing, future-bending work.

Each year, the winners are chosen from five regions – Africa and Arab states, Latin America, North America, Europe and Asia. In the 17 years since the prize's inception, there have only been two laureates from Canada. In her acceptance speech, University of Toronto's Shoichet thanked her colleagues and family for their support, and railed against the "subtle discrimination" female scientists have to endure in their quest to succeed in an astonishingly male dominated field. While university-level recruitment into biology and life sciences is inching toward a gender balance, the physical sciences – such as engineering – remain predominately male.

But in both cases, the larger problem is retention. Many women who enter hard science don't end up staying for a myriad of reasons, the main one being that the qualification process takes so long, and female researchers see their fertility window starting to close before they've even secured a full-time job.

Women account for only about 20 per cent of the world's scientific researchers. And when you look at top tenured positions, that percentage shrinks by half. It is a dismal state of affairs and one that Shoichet, in addition to her extraordinary work developing new methods of delivering drugs to the spinal cord and brain, is determined to change.

"I am really here to tell young women scientists that it is possible to do everything they want to do," Shoichet told me in an interview on the day of the awards ceremony. "It's a struggle, but it will be okay. People are always telling women what they can't do – I had one male professor who told me I shouldn't have children until after I'd secured tenure." Shoichet went ahead and had two sons anyway, the first of whom was born before she recieved tenure. She coached both her son's soccer teams and brought her kids up with the help of her husband (a businessman who she met at engineering school), her mother and a full-time nanny.

Her greatest accomplishment as a mother and a scientist, she says, has been bringing up her sons (now in their tweens) to respect and value women in their careers.

It's amazing the way talk of work, for even the most radically accomplished women, quickly gives way to talk of family – because these two aspects of life are simply inseparable. Unlike men in similar positions, women in the highest echelons of power will still see it as their "job" to manage the care of their loved ones.

How different these women scientists are from the wild-haired Einstein stereotype, lost in abstract thought. Instead, they are intensely practical, engaged and present – as keen to talk about their roles as wives, mothers, mentors and soccer coaches as they are to explain the wide-ranging implications of their research.

At least three of the Laureates brought their own mothers to the ceremony, and thanked them on stage. "She took care of my children when I went up the mountain to stare at the black hole – without her, nothing I've done would be possible," said Professor Thaisa Bergmann, beaming with gratitude.

Forget the Oscars – that's what I call a great moment for women.