Regular readers of this blog will know that I have issues with many fellowships and their unfair selection criteria (see here and here). It’s not that I think research and academia should be a Care Bears Fucking Tea Party. But I do think the least a fellowship should do, is to live up to its self-proclaimed mission statement.
Now, you’ve probably all heard about the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science program: they have been supporting female researchers for almost two decades, handing out awards and fellowships, and they’ve been getting a lot of glam support recently, for example with Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief for Nature, stating: “It is a pleasure to acknowledge the steps that L’Oreal and UNESCO have pursued over the last 20 years with their For Women in Science program”. And overall, I’d say the program has done a pretty good job at supporting women and raising awareness for women in science.
On their homepage it says, the “programs […] provide support to promising young women scientists with worthy viable projects” and that “the For Women in Science partnership has also developed a global network of International, Regional and National Fellowship programmes aimed at supporting young women who represent the future of science”. So far, so good. But, after all this hype, when I checked the actual criteria for the L’Oréal National Fellowships in France*, I found that not only do (the rather complicated) applications have to be submitted completely in French (“ne candidature n’est considérée complète que lorsqu’elle comporte l’ensemble des pièces suivantes, rédigées en français”), but one of the seven “Critères de selection” [selection criteria] is “maîtrise de la langue française“ [mastery of the French language]**.
Why is this a big deal?
Well, first of all, international mobility is a standard feature of a scientific career nowadays, and might easily involve moving to a country where you don’t speak the language. Maybe that’s the place where you can do the best science, maybe the group that fits your needs and qualities resides in such a country, maybe you just want some adventure, or sometimes you may decide to move together with a partner (and yes, the latter is a big deal for women in science– much has been said about the two body problem and academic scattering). As a case in hand, I started working in Lyon in October without ever having learned French, and there are at least six other girls in my French course who speak similarly little of the language. We all made the decision to move here for different reasons, but “mastery of the French language” was definitely not a hiring criteria – actually, most of our bosses told us that French would not be necessary at all for work. So, when women like us are excluded from applying to the For Women in Science fellowship this means that not all women who might “represent the future of science” are given a fair shot, and the fellowship does not take into account the complex and sometimes complicated life choices a modern career in science might entail.
Secondly, the language of research (at least in my field, molecular biology and genetics) is English. So why is that not a legitimate language for applications and fulfilling the terms of the fellowship? I inquired and was given the response that “the French fellows are expected to act as “role model” and “science advocate””. It was further explained that fellows should give presentations in French schools, and thus mastery of the language seemed necessary. In addition, I was encouraged to apply, if my French was sufficient to express myself in such a context, and to submit my application in French.
I fully understand that with such background motivation (and having role models who advocate science in schools seems like a perfectly legitimate goal) it is perfectly understandable if L’Oreal/UNESCO/the Academy of Sciences* is worried about limited outreach capacity. However, such concerns could be addressed fairly easily in the outreach plan, which is part of the application anyway (“Une description détaillée […] [l]a présentation d’un projet de transmission de son travail auprès d’un public jeune”). After all, English-speaking scientists could visit bilingual schools, or make visits in the framework of English classes at French schools. If anything, wouldn’t such visits be more representative of what a career in science is really like? Who better to explain the joys (and sometimes sorrows 😉 of a mobile lifestyle, of pursuing your dreams in an international playing field, of working in a country where you don’t speak the language, than a person who is clearly living these experiences? So then maybe they’re worried about non-French-speaking fellows having difficulties to organize such visits? Well, let me tell you: if someone who doesn’t speak French has managed to fight through all the obstacle of getting an apartment and a Carte Vitale (health insurance card) in France, then organizing a school visit will be a piece of cake. Seriously.
This is of course not to say that foreign researchers should not (try to) learn the language of their new host country: I am seriously indebted to my current research institute for providing free French lessons (and an amazing teacher). But learning a language is slow. Famously, even Marie Curie, who had learnt the language before moving to Paris, initially found that her French was not sufficient to follow classes.*** Therefore, instead of excluding people who dare to make that leap of faith, and to do science in a country where they don’t speak the native language, the L’Oreal-UNESCO French fellowship should recognize and further encourage their work! Particularly, a fellowship that is so widely known, recognized and renowned internationally should be more mindful and in accordance with their own policy – especially when there seems to be no valid argument why they shouldn’t.
*According to their website, there are multiple forms of the For Women in Science program: the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards, the UNESCO-L’Oréal international Fellowships and the L’Oréal National Fellowships. This post is about the French National Fellowships, which according to the website are awarded “with the support of the UNESCO National Commissions, which anchor the For Women in Science programmes in countries around the world, while respecting their particularities and specific needs.” More specifically, the French fellowships “are presented by the L’Oréal Foundation and within the framework of a partnership with the French Commission for UNESCO and the Academy of Sciences.” [“sont remises par la Fondation L’Oréal et s’inscrivent dans le cadre d’un partenariat avec la Commission française pour l’UNESCO et l’Académie des sciences”]. I have not verified if similar language criteria are also imposed in other countries, but if you know about similar issues, please feel free to contact me, so I can update the post.
** All translations in this entry are courtesy of google translate.
*** I’m not entirely sure from where I got this information, but a short search on the internet seems to verify this statement, it is mentioned in multiple biographies of her, see, for example, here and here and here.