Celebrating Women in Science with ESCMID leaders

The International Day of Women and Girls in Science is an annual observance adopted by the United Nations General Assembly to promote the full and equal access and participation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields. This year ESCMID caught up with some of the prominent female figures in our community ranging from award winners and Study Group leaders as well as upcoming Executive Committee members and our President Annelies Zinkernagel.


Introduction by ESCMID President, Annelies Zinkernagel

This day I feel is incredibly important and an outstanding initiative to show young women that they can shape the future of science. I look at what ESCMID offers and am proud to be the first female president of the society, but more so I am excited that the society is continuing on a trend towards gender balance. After our recent elections, women will comprise over 50% of the ESCMID Executive Committee, and our congress boasts true gender equality having 50% of speakers and chairs being women.


My own personal journey has been rewarding from becoming a Young Scientist Awardee all the way to being elected President of ESCMID. A moment that sticks out to me particularly on this occasion was accepting my Young Scientist Award in Milan. I brought my daughters with me on that trip and I could see how proud they were and since then, I have watched them grow into proud young women in their own rights.


Role models are important for the development of women in science and to show the path forward for the younger generation. ESCMID works to support this through our initiatives such as the CAREer grant which supports members with families or caretaking responsibilities as well as our new leadership courses to develop the necessary skills to advance careers in science.


I would also like to highlight the dedicated team of scientists and administrators at the ESCMID office under the leadership of Simone Brüderli. They embody the team spirit that incorporates both women and men coming together to drive women forward in science. This shows through with the many women who take on leadership roles and I am pleased to highlight their own stories and views today as role models within the ESCMID community.


Voices from the ESCMID Community

International Women in Science Day marks an important occasion to celebrate the remarkable contributions and advancements of women in science. It serves as a reminder of how far the scientific community has come to create a more equal environment for innovation, thinking and research. As ESGMD Chair, Hege Vangstein Aamot explained, “While working towards a society where you are considered an individual, not a gender, a race, or a background, it feels meaningful to celebrate women’s contribution to science.By celebrating these contributions, we can inspire future generations of girls to pursue careers in these fields.


Beyond scientific advancements, this day is a tribute to “intellectual diligence, creativity, perseverance…[celebrating] the spirit of experimentation, and innovation that women bring to various fields, extending well into everyday life” shared ESCMID Young Investigator Awardee 2023, Belén Gutiérrez-Gutiérrez.


While significant strides have been made for women working in CM and ID, they still face a myriad of challenges along their professional journeys. As EFWISG Chair, Ana Freitas described these can include underrepresentation in leadership roles, unconscious bias and discrimination, work-life balance and funding disparities, not to mention that many women in STEM can still face inappropriate behaviours which discourages individuals from pursuing a career in these fields.


To address the challenges that can dissuade and hinder women from pursuing a career in CM/ID, ESCMID Young Investigator Awardee 2023, Belén Gutiérrez-Gutiérrez emphasises that societal, foundational, and institutional changes are needed. As a starting point, there is a need to establish criteriathat “ensure equal opportunities for women, recognising and mitigating the potential biases that may affect their career advancement.


The majority of the women we spoke to strongly believe there is a need to reinforce how work-life balance is supported holistically at a family level, as well as in professional societies/institutions and in the general public in order to “[make] working in science compatible with a family-life” said ESGMD Chair, Hege Vangstein Aamot.


ESGCP Chair, Caroline Rönnberg stressed that one of the biggest challenges for women in science is “the fact that having children and caring for a family may mean the end of a scientific career. Also, economic challenges when on maternity leave may have a negative impact on the well-being of young women”. While Caroline feels fortunate to live in a country where parental leave is well supported, this is not the reality for many women pursuing careers in science. As a result, this can pose a significant strain on mental wellbeing as well as financial and job security, highlighting a crucial area where support can be provided. One strong example Rönnberg cited is the ESCMID CAREer Grant, which is an initiative that provides support during parental leave.


ESGNI Chair, Elisabeth Presterl goes on to address the importance of work-life balance and the shared responsibility of parents. She explains “good work, either in professional or private life, needs a lot of time and dedication” and there are “many aspects of life to be covered in having a family as well as all of the amenities of a good life”, so “women and men’s careers – as both genders are important for the child’s upbringing – have to be carefully planned and supported”. Moreover, Presterl brings to light an important idea that men are needed to help shift the discourse to better accommodate and support the balancing of personal and professional responsibilities, which has historically and disproportionally affected women in a negative way along their professional journey in the sciences.


Underlying the need to reshape policies that do not disfavour working mothers in science, is an issue that ESCMID Young Investigator Awardee 2023, Anne Wyllie voiced that “there remains an underrepresentation of women in leadership roles” that leads to a disbalance in policies and recommendations put forward.” To overcome this, Wyllie feels that the lack of representation in leadership roles must be “recognised and acknowledged” and concerted efforts should be made to “ensure that decision-making still incorporates the views and needs of women in the workplace.”


Many of the women we spoke to highlighted how vital female mentorship is for the success and longevity of careers in CM/ID. Gülsen Özkaya Sahin and Fidelma Fitzpatrick are each leader of an ESCMID Study Group and will be joining our Executive Committee at ECCMID this year. They both spoke about actively promoting women to leadership positions which “sends a powerful message”, as they can help in “inspiring and shaping policies to address [the] unique challenges faced by women in this field.Gülsen Özkaya Sahin. She goes on to note that establishing mentorship programmes amongst women at various career stages “provide invaluable guidance, encouragement, and networking opportunities. Such programs contribute to building a sense of community.


As Fidelma Fitzpatrick expands “you can’t be what you can’t see… while at the end of the day you have to figure out what path works for you, having the support and advice of people around and ahead of you is key. These people not only help guide you but also open doors and help you expand your own network.I would not be where I am without the powerful women that went before me, specifically my mother and my grandmother…


There are multiple factors that can further help to support and encourage women in science. EFISG Chair, Ana Alastruey-Izquierdo said “I look to ESCMID to be at the vanguard of this transformation as it has been doing in the last years, championing initiatives that not only celebrate the accomplishments of women but also strategically address the root causes of inequality. Establishing specialized training programs, creating platforms that facilitate networking and mentorship, and developing comprehensive programs that support women through all the phases of their scientific endeavours (is imperative). It's about creating a robust framework where women's contributions are not just welcomed but are seen as integral to the evolution and success of the scientific community.”


EFWISG Chair, Ana Freitas and ESGFOR Chair, Veroniek Saegeman acknowledged that ESCMID had already made commendable steps in fostering gender balance and inclusivity, with a female president and the growing presence of women in leadership roles and executive teams. As a large influential organisation, ESCMID can serve as an excellent example and “sensitisation campaign” for other scientific communities.


Overall, while significant progress has been made for women in science, many of our female leaders including ESCMID Young Investigator Awardee 2023, Anne Wyllie hope to continue seeing increased female representation and recognition in the future: “representation at meetings, conferences, and webinars; on committees and boards; and in recognition of contributions and achievements, whether awards or spotlights.


Looking ahead to the future generations of female scientists thinking of taking their steps towards or already on their journey to a career in CM/ID, we close on some words of wisdom:


  • It is feasible! You’ll encounter many setbacks and challenges, and many people will tell you that you won’t be able to do it. You need to put your heart and soul into anything that you do. The work is much more enjoyable when you are having fun.” ESGEM Chair, Natacha Couto

  • Cultivate tenacity, curiosity, and resilience while keeping an eye on your well-being. The scientific realm is as challenging as it is rewarding, and these traits will be your compass and anchor. Seize every learning opportunity with eagerness, find mentors who will push you beyond your comfort zones, and invest in building a strong professional network. While the road may present obstacles, remember that your unique contributions have the potential to drive groundbreaking developments in science. Your presence and participation are not just welcome—they are essential for the diversity of thought that propels innovation.”EFISG Chair, Ana Alastruey-Izquierdo

  • “Be prepared for a long trip with several steps corresponding to small and large achievements, to enjoy each of them as much as possible in order to recharge energy and enthusiasm for overcoming the annoying experiences, including those related to gender.” ESGICH Chair, Maddalena Giannella

  • Be open, be brave, say hello and get to know new people, surround yourself with your friends and make sure that some of them are not in science and medicine.  Remember setbacks and rejection are a fact of life you just have to dust yourself off and go again” ESGCD Chair, Fidelma Fitzpatrick

  • “Be confident, trust in your capabilities and be assertive in expressing your ideas and contributions. Cultivate a positive mindset that embraces challenges as opportunities for growth. And always stay humble and resilient - the path to success may involve overcoming obstacles and setbacks.”EFWISG Chair, Ana Freitas


If you want to read the full interviews with each of our esteemed female leaders of ESCMID, please see the links below. They all had fantastic answers and this article only showcases a small portion of the wisdom that they can impart on you.