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Nathalie Cabrol at the UN

Nathalie Cabrol at the UN

Reema Khan and Nathalie Cabrol at the UN
Reema Khan and Nathalie Cabrol at the UN

Nathalie Cabrol, Director of the Carl Sagan Center for Research at the SETI Institute, spoke at the United Nations in New York last week as part of the 5th International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly. Her remarks were part of a high-level panel on Digital Economy and Society: STI for Sustainable Development (STI stands for science, technology, innovation).

In her speech, Nathalie recognized the challenges many women face in their pursuit of a career in science. Some of these challenges include delaying or forgoing parenthood, harassment, and cultural and societal biases. Nathalie emphasized the importance of equity in terms of access to education and career opportunities, as well as pay and recognition for talent and work.

Nathalie also shared some of her personal story, recounting how she, like so many women, had to confront people discouraging her from her career choice early in life and later, harassment. Her story is one of empowerment and hope for girls and women working to succeed in science today.

You can watch the video of the full panel here:


Nathalie is introduced by Ms. Reema Khan, friend of the SETI Institute and Founder and CEO of Green Sands Equity at the 1:15 mark in the video. Following is a transcript of Nathalie’s remarks:

Your Royal Highness, Honorable Assembly, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Thank you for the honor of your invitation to discuss the challenges, but also the aspirations and opportunities, for women and girls in science. I am the Head of Science at the SETI Institute, a research institute in California that counts 103 scientists in astronomy, planetary and earth sciences, and space exploration. I am also a planetary scientist leading teams of men and women at all stages in their careers.

My personal journey was neither simple nor easy, but I am one of the lucky ones. I live my dream every day, diving into the highest lakes on Earth for science, and developing a vision of exploration for the search for life in the universe.

Unfortunately achieving the dream of equal opportunity and access remains difficult for too many women today. Some progress is being made. For instance, more women astronauts are being selected and flying, and will soon walk on the Moon, and these are powerful role models for young girls.

But, in spite of these advances, so much more needs to be done! From the American Geophysics Institute 2019 report “Less than 20% of women with terminal geoscience degrees work in the geosciences. Since 2010, the percentage of women with such degrees working as geoscientists declined from 17% to 11% in 2017 – and the list goes on.

To fully address equity, the parental status of women in sciences must also be part of the conversation. If the majority of women in scientific fields are childless, and this was not part of their life plan, is that equitable? Women should not have to choose between getting their degrees or becoming mothers. Spousal support is part of the equation, but what is really required is a formal and structured support system from our society.

Another recurring theme in the loss of women to science is that of harassment. Despite high-profile cases in recent years, many institutions are lacking in the commitment, resources or know-how to proactively and aggressively address this issue.

I was one of these young women, and I faced it all. As a girl, what I aspired to was not even a possibility. I was consistently reminded that women made good mothers or social workers, but not astronauts or planetary scientists. Obviously, I ignored that piece of advice. My passion was my compass, but I had to fight my way on my own through tears and sacrifices. It did not have to be that way. It should not be that way!

I, too, faced the improper behavior of a man who felt he had power over me at a time when the term sexual harassment did not exist. His was a tacitly accepted behavior. But I knew it was wrong and I refused to be threatened. I stood my ground. After all, there are many universities to choose from, but only one reputation and one career.  No man or woman should ever be put in a position where society allows them to be victimized or silenced because they want an education and a career.

Mitigating these issues must first come through changes of cultural and social attitudes, and through changes in implicit biases that affect our actions and decisions in an unconscious manner as a society.

Women in sciences are asking for action plans for everyone, not just women, from academia and industry to address “serial harassment”. They want to see the development of a culture of commitment to protecting vulnerable people at all levels of science.

Solutions are both complex and simple. They can be encapsulated in a few words: Nurture, Support, Empower, and Protect at all stages of education and career, and they can be implemented through a combination of societal commitment and tangible actions I hope we will discuss today.

In concluding, I would like to offer a cautionary note: To counterbalance decades of bias, we should not confuse equity with statistical quotas. Statements that an even 50/50% representation of men and women are needed in all areas are unhelpful. I would be insulted if I learned that I was hired by an organization to meet a diversity quota. Quotas are insulting to women and unfair to men, and there has to be a better way forward.

Equity is the right for any human being to receive the best possible education and have equal access to career opportunities, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, social status, or race.

Equity is the right for every human being to compete and be acknowledged for their talent, and to receive equal pay for equal work. It is the right to pursue one’s dream in a safe environment, and through the light well all shine and the inspiration we all bring, together make our society better as a whole.

Thank you.

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