The Female Factor

9 February 2018

By Linda-Gail Bekker, President of the International AIDS Society

Although women remain under-represented in many science fields, the history of HIV cannot be truly told without focusing on the critical contributions of women. I have worked as a physician scientist in this field with a particular focus on addressing the needs of poor and vulnerable communities in sub-Saharan Africa for the past 25 years. Women’s critical role is one of many reasons why the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a special day for me personally.

Women’s scientific contributions in the HIV field go all the way back to the discovery of HIV. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi received the Nobel Prize in medicine, along with Luc Montagnier, for their 1983 report of the newly identified virus, now known as HIV. This discovery opened the door to HIV testing, to understanding of the pathogenesis of HIV infection, and eventually to the highly effective antiretroviral therapies now in widespread use.

As scientists, researchers and programme implementers, women have been at the forefront of the most important scientific advances in the HIV response, including prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission and the use of antiretroviral therapy for HIV prevention. Women have spearheaded research to develop microbicides and other female-controlled prevention methods. And women scientists have documented the strong associations between HIV infection and sexual- and gender-based violence.

Women’s contributions to scientific advances in HIV and other public health challenges are important for several reasons. Scientific challenges as urgent as the search for an HIV cure or a preventive vaccine are too important to foreclose contributions by half of the world’s collective brain trust. But women’s scientific involvement serves another incredibly important purpose. In science, as in other fields, the involvement of women in leadership positions makes it more likely that women’s issues will be effectively addressed. With women representing more than half of all people living with HIV worldwide, we need women’s scientific leadership to ensure that the unique needs of and issues for women figure prominently in the HIV scientific agenda.

Supporting rather than punishing women who choose to mix career and family will strengthen workplace cohesion and productivity and ensure that we have a steady pipeline of women science leaders and colleagues. That means that we need to invest in a new generation of girls and women who can become the HIV scientific leaders of the future.

The International AIDS Society (IAS) is doing its part to ensure gender equality in our own programmes; in 2017, almost half the IAS fellows in the organization’s Towards an HIV Cure initiative were young women.

So while the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is a moment to honour and celebrate women’s long history of scientific leadership, it should be more broadly recognized beyond a single day. Where we are in science today would not be possible without the female factor – the many courageous, committed women that inspire, innovate and build while nurturing the next generation.

Read the full article online here