Women in Science in the Pursuit of Excellence

Date: Friday, November 4, 2011

UN Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet speech at the Rockefeller University on the occasion of the award of the Pearl Meister Greengard prize to renowned neuroscientist Brenda Milner. November 3, 2011.

[ Check against delivery ]

Thank you, Dr. Tessier-Lavigne for your very kind introduction and the gracious welcome you have given me here at Rockefeller University.This is an inspiring venue. A venue where men and women in science come together in the pursuit of excellence in the service of humanity.

I want to especially congratulate you for having a programme for women in science. Some forty percent of your faculty staff are women and that is impressive! The dedicated support you extend to the advancement of women scientists, the fact that you see Rockefeller women as national and international agents of change is an inspiring best practice.

We sure have come a long way since those days when Pierre Curie had to insist that the Nobel Prize in Physics offered to him and Henri Becquerel would not be accepted unless his wife shared in it. But so much more remains to be done. Achievements and programmes like yours are key and yet all too often they are the exception, rather than the norm, in this world.
So it's a privilege and an honor to spend this evening in your company. I thank the members of the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize Selection Committee for inviting me to participate in the presentation of this award.

I would like to commend Ursula von Rydingsvard and Paul Greengard for establishing this significant award. Thank you for recognizing the need for such a prize. Today deeply rooted attitudes and beliefs continue to guide women away from the pursuit of excellence in science. In establishing this prize, you showed more than vision. You showed deep generosity when you decided to help move women from the margins of the scientific enterprise to the center where they belong.

Tonight we dedicate this award to Dr. Brenda Milner.

Dr. Milner, I am very happy to participate in this moment of your life. Please accept my congratulations to you on this recognition of your important work. You have inspired countless men and women. Your path-breaking work in basic science, no doubt, helped and will continue to help countless people around the world.

Not only are you an exceptional scientist, you stand out as a great woman pioneer of our times. Your stamina, integrity, and curiosity coupled with your courage, generosity, humility and perseverance make you a role model for generations of women and women scientists to come.

I am told that wherever you go young people flock to you! I am not surprised because role models and mentors like you are so needed today. You combine the rigors of scientific inquiry with the compassion of the humanities. This makes you a woman of the brain and the heart—a combination that is truly needed to overcome the challenges we face in our complex and interdependent world!

As you know, I am a medical doctor by background. As a young physician I took the Hippocratic oath. This oath contains a sentence relevant way beyond the confines of the world of the physician. It says: “I will remember that I remain a member of society with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

Life gradually led me onto a path in public policy and life. Yet, it is a path guided by, as the oath says, that special obligation we all have towards our fellow human beings.

Right now, this path has bestowed on me the responsibility of being the founding Executive Director for UN Women.

Before I talk about that, let me go back for a moment in time. In 1918, the year Dr. Milner was born, the world population was 1.8 billion, an influenza epidemic incapacitated 1 billion and killed 20 million people, all this within the space of eight weeks. Most of the people who died were in their thirties.

Dr. Milner was born in a country just experiencing the end of the first world war. It was women who had worked in munitions and kept farms going during the war and for this, the women expected something in return from the government. In response, the 1918 Representation of the People Act gave propertied women over 30 years of age the right to vote!

Today, women can now vote virtually everywhere. This week, we also reached the 7 billion mark in world population. Our planet that we all share is now host to the largest generation of girls and women ever born. There are now more than 850 million girls and young women aged 10 to 24.,

But despite enormous progress including tremendous scientific advances - the reality for women remains one characterized by inequality. For far too many women and girls, the reality is physical violence or sexual trafficking, lack of education or employment, under-representation at executive levels, lack of access to health and HIV/AIDS prevention and care, basic human rights violations and political under-representation. Women continue to suffer all sorts of discrimination and disparities persist.

So it is incumbent on all of us to ask what kind of world will our children inherit? What kind of world will their children be born into? How will they lead the next generation? Who will girls and young women, boys and young men look to as role models and mentors?

Too often still, in many parts of the world, women cannot make their own decisions about their body or their life and their voice is silent or silenced.

Statistics show us how far we are from gender equality. Of the estimated 1.3 billion poor in the world more than sixty per cent are women. Of the estimated 780 million illiterates in the world about sixty-five per cent are women. Up to six out of every ten women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime.

Women work two-thirds of the world's working hours and produce half of the world's food, yet earn only 10 per cent of the world's income and own less than one per cent of the world's property. Only one in four senior officials or managers is a woman.

In 2010, six per cent of elected head of states or government were women. On average, women hold 16 per cent of ministerial posts and 19 percent of seats in parliament.

And in the sciences throughout the world, only a handful of women preside over a national science academy.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, women represent not only half of the world population but also a tremendous untapped potential from which their community, society and entire nation can benefit.
We already know that many industrialized economies will soon face shortages of scientists and engineers. In the decades to come, people who master the sciences will change the world to a large extent. And for these reasons and more, it is important to fully tap the human potential of both women and men.

So far 2011 has indeed been a challenging but also a groundbreaking year for women. We all have seen the protests in North Africa and the Middle East and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to three women who stand up for peace and democracy. And while that is progress and the past century has brought deep transformation of women's legal rights, most of the laws continue to exist only on paper. They still do not translate to equality and justice for so many, too many, women.

It was against this background that UN Women was created in 2010. And tonight's award was created to bring women from the margins of the scientific enterprise to the center where they belong.UN Women was created to drive greater progress in gender equality and the empowerment of women. Together with partners worldwide, we are working to advance women's economic empowerment, political participation and leadership, to end violence against women and girls, to make gender equality a priority in national plans and budgets, and to make sure that women enjoy full participation in peacemaking, peacebuilding and reconstruction.

To achieve this, we will need many Brenda Milner's in this world. We will need many men and women like Ursula von Rydingsvard and Paul Greengard. Indeed, a peaceful, just world founded on dignity and respect for each human being cannot be achieved if fifty per cent of the population is excluded.

Once more science gives us a beautiful insight here! It became evident to Dr. Milner and others that each hemisphere of the brain acting alone was severely handicapped- on memory and other vital tasks and functions. So what did she do? She used her excitement and curiosity to further explore how the two hemispheres work together, both in health and disease, in a holistic manner.

And this is the same for all of us at UN Women. What drives us forward? It is knowing that equality between women and men is a matter of human rights and it also so much more. Gender equality is a condition for social justice; it is a necessary and fundamental prerequisite for democracy, peace and development for all.

Having said that, we also know that achieving this equality will require a stamina akin to the one shown to us by Dr. Milner. Sustained and long-term commitment will be essential, so that women and men can work together for themselves, for their children and for society to meet the challenges of our century and beyond. Just as you at Rockefeller University help women scientists to move ahead, we all must work together so that women have equal access to all educational, economic, social, cultural and political opportunities. Including the “other half of the world on equal footing is the only way to face the challenges that the entire planet is facing and will increasingly be faced with in the 21st Century. And recent events are telling in this regard.

So let me close with words pronounced long ago but so relevant to our times. “In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.

“Commitment is what transforms a promise into reality. It is the words that speak boldly of your intentions. And the actions which speak louder than the words. It is making the time when there is none. Coming through time after time after time, year after year after year. Commitment is the stuff character is made of; the power to change the face of things. It is the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism. Abraham Lincoln (1809 - 1865) Sixteenth President of the United States.

Dr. Milner you showed commitment, you show action, you know it takes a team to advance - it takes men and women.

Let us all live up to the high standards you set for all of us.

Thank you.