The L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards – Science needs women

When Nigerian Francisca Nneka Okeke was a child, she would wonder about the changing colour of the sky and the ability of aeroplanes to fly in the atmosphere without plummeting back to Earth.

Discovering that physics could answer these questions, Okeke was motivated to become a scientist and was one of only two women in her physics undergraduate class of 30 students in 1980. She went on to become the first female head of physics at the University of Nigeria, and later the first female dean of the faculty of physical sciences.

Now she is a laureate of this year’s L’Oréal-UNESCO Award For Women in Science, or FWIS. University World News spoke to her after the prize-giving ceremony at the Sorbonne in Paris on 28 March.

The world has changed since Okeke graduated, but high-profile women scientists are still few and far between, especially in developing countries.

According to UNESCO, women are underrepresented in science – in basic scientific research and at decision-making levels. “We don’t have the luxury of continuing with this situation,” said Irina Bokova, director general of UNESCO.

The agency says Africa’s capacity to compete in the global market “depends on its ability to innovate using science, technology and innovation to transform its vast natural and latent human resource capability into value-added goods, processes and service”.

Okeke is one of those at the forefront of innovation, with her research on the ionosphere potentially furthering the understanding of climate change.

Obstacles facing women

She told University World News that she was lucky to have a mathematician father who was a great mentor. Qualified young women are still too often being denied their dreams of entering science.

“People used to think that when you got into these core science subjects, like physics, the characteristics that are most worthily accepted for females in our society such as passivity, emotionality, intuition and receptivity would no longer be possessed by that female. Therefore, they fought against women trying to embark on studying these core subjects.”

In remote areas, despite the presence of ‘enlightened’ people, the situation could be worse.

“Sometimes you have girls who are very brilliant but are forced into early marriage,” Okeke said. “We can make parents aware of the advantages of their daughters becoming scientists, and that society has more to gain when they are scientists than when they given out in marriage so early.”

Okeke, who is currently professor of physics at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, said that higher education institutions could introduce awards and scholarships for women in sciences to attract more students.

“Instituting these will not only encourage women in science, but will sensitise and build them up,” she said “More women will be encouraged to read science as a career. This will go a long way in boosting the participation of women in science and technology; hence more women scientist leaders will emerge.”

She added that she wants to use her award to be a role model, so that more girls realise that a career in science is possible.

She described her award as a “big challenge. It has strengthened me to continue to encourage girls and women to participate in development of science and technology, by offering these core science courses in schools and universities.

“This invariably means development of a nation.”

The L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards

Science’s role in development is one of the reasons for the L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards, according to Jean-Paul Agon, chair and chief executive officer of L’Oréal.

“The world needs science more than ever, and science needs women more than ever,” he said. “Science is crucial to solving problems related to climate change and to economic and humanitarian problems.”

Pointing out that only two women have been among the 193 individuals awarded the Nobel prize for physics, Agon said that the aim of the award and fellowship programme was to provide support to women scientists working on viable projects, and also to recognise their contribution to the advancement of science.

Since the FWIS partnership was created in 1998, it has supported more than 1,700 women from 108 countries, according to L’Oréal and UNESCO. The awards are presented annually to five women, one from each region: Africa and the Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America. The laureates each received US$100,000 this year.

In addition, an international fellowship programme was launched in 2000 to “encourage promising women at the doctoral or postdoctoral level”. It selects 15 women, three from each UNESCO region, to continue their research in institutions outside their home country.

Agon said there was no “conventional commercial interest” for L’Oréal in these projects, as the scientists’ fields are different from what the company does.

But some observers might argue that the sale of its products to women around the world does give the company an obligation to support women. L’Oréal’s net profit in 2012 rose 17.6% to €2.87 billion (US$3.8 billion), mostly on higher sales in Africa and Asia, for instance.

The French-based company is the world’s largest cosmetics and beauty concern, and recorded sales of €22.46 billion last year, according to its annual report. It has a controversial history, and recently media focus has been on financial links between one of its main shareholders, Liliane Bettencourt (the daughter of its founder), and conservative French politicians.

The science awards in partnership with UNESCO show L’Oréal’s ‘social responsibility’ side, however, and the laureates say the FWIS programme has been beneficial to science and women scientists.

“The award has actually raised the profile of science as a university choice for young women in a very fascinating and encouraging way,” Okeke said. “It has made science very popular for women [as] we are sensitised.”

Marie Florence Ngo Ngwe, one of the three international fellows from Africa and a PhD student of plant biotechnology, said that programmes to support women in science were essential because of the particular challenges women face.

“Even when it’s not said outright, it’s implied that you should be concentrating on getting married and having children rather than focusing on science,” she told University World News.