Be Not Afraid of Science: Dr. Chia-Li Wu

Photo Source: Taiwan Women e Press

Leading feminist challenges young women to enter STEM

Taiwan is one of the leading countries in the world to witness the rise of feminism over the past decades. Though relatively late in comparison with their counterparts in the US and Europe, the feminist movement on the island gained public awareness and support as early as the 1980s.

Since then, the status of women on this island enjoyed a significant rise over the past three decades. One example is the record-high 50.74 percent rise in women’s labor force participation rate in 2015. In early 1978, only 38 percent of women over 15 years of age had participated in the labor force.

However, more needs to be done to promote gender equality, especially in the field of science and technology, which is largely dominated by gender stereotypes.

Wu Chia-Li, a feminist leader in Taiwan, states that the men-women ratio in higher education institutes is nearly one-to-one.

“However, we only find one-third of female graduates in the male-dominated field of science and technology,” she says. The number of female postgraduates and professors in science and technology are even smaller, according to Wu.

A lack of female role models causes a diminished inclination for girls and young women to enter STEM.

Wu, an emeritus professor of chemistry at Tamkang University, says she has been pushing for more females to join academia. In 2011, she founded the Society of Taiwan Women in Science and Technology to raise the visibility of women scientists and to encourage more women to pursue science as a career.

Women have the same capacity as men to make life-changing discoveries as well as to pass on their findings to others through teaching. Moreover, scientific research usually involves working in a team. Women not only have a great capacity for teamwork, but also often offer different perspectives to accomplish an objective.

Reflecting on her past, Wu admits that she had little knowledge or interest in social issues when she studied chemistry at National Taiwan University (NTU). Additionally, any kind of social activism was considered taboo under martial law at the time.

When she went to the United States to obtain her master’s and doctoral degrees, Wu witnessed demonstrations against the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War, as well as protests regarding the Diaoyutai Islands dispute and Taiwan’s withdrawal from the United Nations in the 70’s. As a result, she became increasingly aware of the many social issues affecting her homeland. She returned to Taiwan immediately after her graduate studies and began teaching at Tamkang University, where she met other feminists, including Professor Lee Yuan-jen. Together, they established Awakening Magazine in 1982.

After the lifting of martial law in 1987, the magazine became a strong voice for gender equality in Taiwan. The magazine eventually transformed into a foundation, gaining fame as a leading champion of gender equality.

Reforms needed to raise women’s status

From 2002 to 2008, Wu served as a member of the Examination Yuan tasked with validating the qualifications of civil servants.

During her tenure, Wu initiated a series of reforms. Most notably, she removed the female quota limit for the national civil service examinations, thus ensuring equal opportunity for women in Taiwan to serve as civil servants. Government agencies, such as the Coast Guard Administration, Bureau of Investigation and National Police Agency, gradually removed quota restrictions on the recruitment of officers to meet the Act of Gender Equality in Employment enacted in 2002.

Despite this steady increase in women in the workforce, the current female labor force participation rate of 51 percent in Taiwan is not unusually high among East Asian countries. Today, this rate is roughly comparable with that of Japan (49 percent) and Korea (50 percent in 2013), while lower than the rates of Singapore (60.4 percent in 2016) and China (64 percent).

“I believe a government agency should choose staff based on ability and professional skill instead of gender,” says Wu. “For a long time now, the US and most of Europe as well as many Asia countries have not been considering gender in the selection of people for civil service.”

Along with this retired chemistry professor, several NGOs for women can also be credited for breaking through the glass ceiling for women diplomats. Since 1996, increasingly more women are serving as diplomats stationed overseas. During that year alone, Ministry of Foreign Affairs accepted 653 applicants for the foreign service, of which 319 (49 percent) were women. Currently, of the 1,500-plus foreign ministry personnel, 41 percent are women.

Wu notes that society has also changed over the years. It is no longer rare to see fathers holding their babies, or men doing the shopping. “Society has become more gender equal.”

Overstatement of the issue

She believes that promoting gender equality in Taiwan requires a certain level of “overdoing” due to the gender imbalance in public office, academia, and senior management posts for centuries. “Overcorrection is a necessary evil so that this society can go from imbalanced to balanced,” she says.

In her own field, there are notably few women. So, in 2008, Wu started an e-Newsletter for women in science and technology. The Society of Taiwan Women in Science and Technology (TWiST) was born three years later from this e-Newsletter. The society sought to raise the visibility of the nation’s women scientists, and encourage them to pursue careers in science. “Women are a minority in science and technology. We need to unite and exchange the latest developments in our special fields, as well as discuss gender issues.” TWiST also offers awards for young women scientists to attend international conferences and workshops. To encourage young girls to join STEM fields, they have also been publishing picture books and storybooks on women scientists.

She believes those who aspire to work in STEM fields should focus on studying high school subjects related to science and technology. “Many women are terrified by mathematics and natural sciences because they feel threatened by traditional stereotypes as well as the tough exams. We think that good teachers, role models, and strong encouragement will definitely help young girls overcome this fear and fall in love with the beauty of science.”

Other articles in this issue

Technology with a Gender Perspective: Smart Agriculture

Technology and digital tools can help lighten the burden for women to participate in the agricultural sector. Let’s take a look at how digitalization can benefit women in agriculture in Taiwan!

Injecting New Life into Ailing Bodies and Companies: Dr. Sherry Ku

Dr. Sherry Ku encourages young women in STEM to fight for what they deserve with her own experience, which teaches her a lesson that never let your gender limit you.

NGOCSW 64: Taiwan Gender Equality Week

Taiwan will be holding Taiwan Gender Equality Week in New York during NGOCSW 64. Don’t miss the chance to know more about Taiwan’s recent achievements on women’s rights and gender equality!

This article is derived from Fifteen Role Models for Women and Girls in STEM, which is published by APEC Policy Partnership on Women and Economy.

This booklet shows how these women thrive to succeed in the traditionally male-dominated STEM areas. Click here to read more.

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