More fellowship outrage: des bourses francaises L’Oreal-UNESCO pour les femmes et la science

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.

2 thoughts on “More fellowship outrage: des bourses francaises L’Oreal-UNESCO pour les femmes et la science

  1. I’m slightly baffled. Try applying to a fellowship in the US or the UK (or most other countries, I’d guess) without knowing any English, then let me know how well that works! In any subject, not only those in which English is regarded as ‘the’ subject language. What’s wrong with France doing just the same?

    I am a non-native speaker of English (my only native language is Italian) and I have obtained my PhD from a British university, where I now work as a post-doc. In view of future employment I am very grateful for the existence of international schemes that do not require knowledge of the host country’s language at the time of taking up the fellowship (Humboldt fellowships in Germany, Veni Vidi Vici fellowships in the Netherlands, etc.) as my employment prospects would be much more limited otherwise. However, I cannot really find fault with the idea that moving to a country should require knowledge of the language that, you know, people speak in that country… This is normally the case, unless I am much mistaken, and was definitely the case for me as well as for all others who were (and are) applying to positions in the UK.

    I worry that this may be a case of double standards. The French have a reputation (how well-deserved I do not know) for being a tad chauvinistic and very jealous of their language; so they are fair game for articles such as this one. But nobody bats an eyelid when exactly the same policy is regularly enforced in British and American universities without a second thought, indeed without even having to write it in the notes of guidance for the post, because OF COURSE the applicant is expected to know English and apply in English! Someone might even be perplexed at this comment, as though it was simply unthinkable that French in France and English in the UK / US should be actually treated in the same way.

    And do not get me started on other aspect of academic Anglo-centrism. My subject is not, and has never been, ‘English-only’ (or even ‘English-mostly’); at least German, French, and Italian have equal status with English, and interesting stuff gets published in other languages too. Accordingly, top-class subject journals in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, etc. (possibly even in France!) accept articles written in any of these languages. British and American journals, on the other hand, only accept English. Yet people complain about the alleged chauvinism of the French while being completely oblivious to their own.

    (Sorry for going a bit OT at the end, but I hope you see my point.)

  2. Hi, Thanks a lot for your feedback. I think you raise a couple of points and I’m not sure I agree with all of them:
    1) the domainance of English in science: while I agree that there are many good science articles written in other languages (and sometimes other languages even have more precise terminology), English is currently de facto the main language of biological science. And when you interview for a position in France it is not a requirement to speak French. In fact, most employers will claim that there is an “international work environment”. In reality, this is of course not true, and you will be forced to learn French, but at least on paper it is recognised that English is the language of science and that French is not needed. Moreover, I would like to point out that while you need to prove you speak English when you move to the UK or the US, in France you are specifically told you don’t need French.
    2) whether or not a fellowship should enforce a language criterion: I am not strictly against the concept of such a criteria. In fact, I think putting pressure on scientists to learn at least the rudimentary basics of the language of their new host country is good. What I do have an issue with, though, is that a fellowship that has almost trademarked itself as an international fellowship, supporting women around the world, thinks this is OK. Especially, since their reasoning (the ability to do outreach) is total BS (I went to give some talks in a French high school only last week, something most of my French colleagues has never done). And so, imposing such a criterion is unfair, because it excludes a group of people without proper justification.
    I think being proud of your language is OK. It’s just that rather than putting in place stupid regulations like this, a government or institution should support scientists in their effort to learn the local language (eg by offering language classes that are compatible with a wet-lab research schedule).

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