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The reluctant approach to achieving an equal gender ratio among scientists in STEM in Armenia may soon change significantly as the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology (FAST) emphasizes the importance of encouraging and engaging women.

 

Text : Karine Ghazaryan

 

As one of the biggest and most comprehensive projects working with science and technology in the region, FAST has proven its commitment to empowering female scientists and encouraging young women to explore their potential as researchers and contribute to the development of the field in Armenia. Women are present in FAST team on all levels: from the board of trustees to the promising young scientists of the NextGen Council.

“My colleagues at the lab are mostly men, and I haven’t faced any discrimination from them,” says Dr. Astghik Hakobyan, a researcher at Yerevan Institute of Molecular Biology and member of the NextGen Council. “Actually, we have a lot of women in the field of science. The problem is that not many of them end up at top managerial positions.” Astghik highlights the lack of ambition in young female researchers – the very same aspiration they were taught not to demonstrate. Women are underrepresented on the higher levels of the academic hierarchy (e.g. Grand Doctor level, this is the second degree, not to be confused with PhD) in all STEM fields. Studies have shown that over the past 17 years, only 18.7% Grand Doctors of Science on average have been female. “At first glance, there are so many women in academia and the applied sciences, including my field, but when it comes to PhD studies, women tend to be elected less,” says Hripsime Atoyan, senior laboratory assistant at the Research Group of Molecular Parasitology of Scientific Center of Zoology and Hydroecology of NAS RA. Hripsime is one of the three female PhD students to have received a FAST Fellowship in 2018. She points out that many universities may drop female candidates in favour of males. According to the data provided by Statistical Committee of the Republic of Armenia, only 11% of full-time PhDs are female, even though they make up 69.6% of degree-seekers. Men used to occupy most of this seats, as this was the only way to get a deferment from army. This picture will change in the upcoming year, as the law of deferment has been modified. “When I was starting my PhD, people were a bit accusing, pointing out that the place could be given to a young man who had to serve. Fortunately, my supervisor was quick to defend me.”

Taking this background into consideration, FAST developed a special initiative to support female students: the Fellowship program of the Foundation, which provides scholarships for the best students, allocating 10 fellowships meant exclusively for outstanding female degree-seekers. And this is just one step in the long-term strategy of valuing not only talent and creativity, but also equal opportunities.

The extremely unbalanced ratio of women and men in the field of science, especially in STEM, has been around for so long that we have almost gotten used to it. Apart from pointing out the obvious, there did not appear to be much being done in Armenia to solve the problem. But as FAST picks up steam in the country, there is hope that the new generation of researchers in the field traditionally occupied by men will become more diverse.