From left to right: Silvia Restrepo of Universidad de los Andes, Jan Leach of Colorado State University, Patricia del Portillo of CorpoGen, and Sally Mackenzie of Pennsylvania State University speak during a panel discussion on women in science at CIAT headquarters in Cali, Colombia.

Colorado State University in the United States is experiencing a first: Its College of Agriculture has an unprecedented four women as heads of its five departments, according to Jan Leach, the associate dean for research at the college. The other position is vacant, and it might well go to a deserving woman.

Next year, Universidad de los Andes, a private research university in Bogota, could also have its first woman elected to rector. It’s something its vice-rector for research, Silvia Restrepo, fervently hopes will happen.

In other words, some women in science are shattering the proverbial glass ceiling. The process, though, is slow and long.

Restrepo and Leach, together with CorpoGen Executive Director Dr. Patricia del Portillo and Pennsylvania State University Professor Sally Mackenzie, spoke during a panel discussion on women in sciences, which CIAT hosted last week at its headquarters in Cali, Colombia. They discussed their respective research career paths, inspirations, challenges, and ideas to boost active participation of women in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, collectively known as STEM.

In universities and scientific organizations everywhere, women are generally underrepresented. Restrepo noted for instance that women only make up a tenth of her university’s full professor positions.

The panelists discussed some of the reasons for the underrepresentation, agreeing that it is a mix of factors. One is the long-held perception that there are just some careers for women. Another is that women, especially the ones with families, would prefer not to work long hours so they can spend time with their children.

There’s also the rigid expectation about how one should progress in her science career.

Mackenzie, the Lloyd and Dottie Huck Chair for Functional Genomics at Penn State’s Department of Biology, said it should be OK for a woman to go back to school (or work) after she has children or do a postdoctoral study after she’s already had certain kinds of training.

“[T]hat would be much more inviting to women to have full and steady careers in science than what I think we offer now, which is that you should have had your PhD by this age, then your postdoc, then you start your position and promotion by this year, which has not worked well for the American system in keeping women engaged and wanting those jobs,” she added.

The panel also made reference to the importance of working for a supportive organization, and having a supportive spouse as key.

Del Portillo said her husband was her “big supporter,” one who was always ready to take care of their child if she needed to travel or stay late at work.

“It’s not easy to combine all the things,” she said. “But I’m lucky [to have a husband like mine].”

Jennifer Twyman, postdoctoral social scientist at CIAT, noted that there remains a lot of challenges for women in science.

“I don’t think there are any easy answers, but we are getting more and more role models, like our great panel,” added CIAT’s gender expert.

The panel discussion on women in sciences was part of the Robert D. Havener Seminar on “Innovations for Crop Productivity” held September 14. It represents a starting point for CIAT to pursue a dialogue to ensure more women engagement in STEM.

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