HKUST (GZ) Academic Women: Shine In Their Way

What's it like to be an academic woman?Do women remain a “minority” in academia?Is the “glass ceiling” a constant barrier to academic women?As International Women's Day 2022 approaches, HKUST (GZ) hosted a special "Female Roundtable". We invited female professors from four different hubs to talk about the problems they encountered and the benefits they gained in their academic careers.


Statistics indicate that among 975 winners of the Nobel Prize, the most recognized award in natural sciences, from 1901 to 2021, only 58 of them are women (Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes).



Currently, only 6% of the academicians of the Chinese Academy of Sciences are female. The latest survey by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) points to a string of interesting facts. Women make up 43% of tenured professors; female full-time faculty only earn about 81% as much as their male counterparts; women take up 50% of assistant professors, 45% of associate professors, and 34% of full professors...

It may seem that female scientists are confronting some kind of "inequality" at their workplace, but is this really the case?

As International Women's Day 2022 approaches, HKUST (GZ) hosted a special "Female Roundtable". We invited female professors from four different hubs to talk about the problems they encountered and the benefits they gained in their academic careers.


What is the status of female researchers in your academic field?


Yu Huan: I think female researchers are struggling against various challenges in their fields. Especially in STEM where I work, gender equality exists only in name in any sense.

Li Jia: On my way from study to work, I did not have strong feelings about the challenges faced by women in scientific research. The first time that I was stricken by gender inequality at my workplace is when I attended a conference on encouraging the participation of female scientists in scientific research. When we were discussing the problems women face in life or scientific research, I noticed how frequently the two female teachers from the USA and China used the word "fight" in their presentations, such as "We have to fight for our rights... We have to fight for our job... " That's when I realized that gender issues are still a big challenge to female researchers in the scientific community.

Gender imbalance is exactly a great concern in the field of scientific research. For example, during my undergraduate years, the ratio of male to female students was about 8:1. During my PhD study at the Department of Mechanical Engineering of Imperial College, the ratio rose to 16:1. Gender imbalance also exists at the school management, and it gets worse the higher you go. For example, men hold most positions in senior management, while only a few schools have female vice-deans. At the University of Exeter where I took up my first job, the role of dean was held by a woman, but there were only three women in the faculty. At the University of Edinburgh, where I had my second job, the ratio of male to female mechanical faculty staggeringly stood at 7:1. In a word, there is a huge gender gap in scientific research. Even now, women are involved in policymaking and leadership much less than men, which leads to inequality against women in this world dominated by men. Therefore, we must work on promoting women’s employment and participation in politics, and make a difference in generations to come from college, which is important to advancing gender equality.

Yu Liuqian: As a researcher on earth science, I finished my undergraduate study, graduate study, and study as an exchange student in China, Canada and Norway, respectively. As far as I can remember, female students made up half of the enrollment, but female professors were rare. All of these point to the fact that female scientists are confronted with greater obstacles on their way from school education to career development.


Does “gender inequality” really exist in the scientific community? Or do you think there is a “glass ceiling” for female scientists?


Varvara:Things are better than before, I believe. As a young mother, I had a hard time during my PhD studies. Academia, in general, is a highly competitive and insecure field. More men than women are in the leading positions in academia, which is often caused not because women are not elected or offered these positions but because there are not enough women in such ranks. Hence, we should think about making universities more female-supportive from early on.

Yu Huan: I think it does exist, especially for the few female scientists in the field of STEM. Statistics show that the proportion of women decreases on their path of career development, and it is difficult for female scientists to make it to “the top of the pyramid”.

During the early development from PhD to tenured faculty, young female researchers are often on the move and have to bond with the new life again and again. The uncertainty and unpredictability faced by female researchers also present a great challenge to their family life.

Traditionally speaking, women are expected to bear a bigger share of family responsibilities by society, which often comes at the expense of some precious opportunities for research work or career development. In 2019, I was invited to a seminar on the career development of female engineers by Stanford University, and I found that most of those top young female researchers in the USA were worried about how to balance family and work in the future, which is less of a concern to male researchers around us. Besides, as women hold fewer leadership roles in the field of STEM, there is often a lack of female perspective in recruitment and promotion, which makes it difficult for women to be promoted from the bottom.

Yu Liuqian: “Gender inequality” is a common scene, and it is not unique to the scientific community. One fundamental reason is that women in modern society are still expected to assume more responsibilities in the family. For example, if a woman has a successful career, the public will pay more attention to whether she takes care of her family or not, which is not a problem for a man with the same achievement. If she fails to meet the expectations, the public will tend to think that she has sacrificed her family for her career. What lies behind it is the stereotype that women are supposed to contribute more to their families. However, we may not realize that the problem that we take for granted is big in itself.


What do you think has changed the most among female researchers during your academic career?


Yu Huan: Female scientists have been seeing improvements in their academic careers over the years. Up to now, China has released a number of preferential policies for female scientists. For example, the National Natural Science Foundation of China relaxed the age limit of female applicants. The Ministry of Science and Technology encouraged the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering to nominate more outstanding female scientists as academic candidates and select female candidates under the same conditions. I am also impressed by the improvements in daily work and the unremitting efforts our colleagues have made in this regard. For example, at the Intelligent Transportation (INTR) Thrust of Systems Hub where I serve, three of the five new faculty are women.

Yu Liuqian: Since I become a graduate student, I have been engaged in academic research for one decade. One of the changes I have observed is that a growing number of female researchers and groups are contributing their voices and ideas to improve women’s career development.

Li Jia: Now there are more female researchers than before. At the Society Hub where I work and cross-disciplinary research is being conducted extensively, the number of female faculty is significantly higher than that of the university devoted to engineering education and research where I once served. Another change can be felt between generations. I know some Swedish people born in the 60s and 70s from work. Even though gender equality is highly advocated in Sweden, they still think that gender inequality existed during their parents' time. But now, gender inequality has greatly improved.


During your academic career, which female researcher has had a great influence on you?


Varvara:I admire work of Kate Crawford and Christa Sommerer

Yu Huan: Those female researchers, colleagues and students around me have always been a constant source of inspiration to me. I am deeply impressed by the persistent efforts they have made to pursue their academic dreams amid various difficulties. Since I joined HKUST (GZ) six months ago, I have been so lucky as to research and live together with two female teachers. While making meaningful discussions with many female teachers on academic and future development, I am often inspired by their academic enthusiasm and rigorous working attitude. In addition to their outstanding academic ability, what they have in common are persistence and courage. Besides, I instruct two female doctoral students, both of whom are excellent and smart. Deeply moved by their dedication and down-to-earth attitude towards daily study and research, I am convinced that more outstanding female researchers will emerge in the field of STEM.

Li Jia: When I started working, I met a female teacher named Catherine Mitchell, who is now an honorary professor of energy policy at the University of Exeter. She would think about a problem at a higher level and show us how to break it down into smaller ones. She has a greater influence on my life than on my academic career. The teacher was in her 50s when I first met her. With a deep passion for life, she dresses decently with ornaments every day. She loved sports and was especially good at tennis. She played it every week. I stayed at home almost all day after giving birth to my third child, and she was the one who told me I had to exercise and advised me to “run along the coast”. When I was so tired and wanted to go back home after running for only five or six hundred meters, I began to think about what she said. That is, I must learn to enjoy life. Now, I have a habit of exercising regularly.

Yu Liuqian: From being a student to being a researcher, I have been inspired by many female friends, peers and seniors who have shined in their way. I can’t tell the one who has had the greatest influence on me. These women who shine in their way not only influence me but also show me what we can achieve.


What is the most valuable tip you have received in your research career? Just say something to encourage women who want to plunge into scientific research.


Yu Huan: The tip that led me to the academic world is that scientific research is the best job in the world. That is because you can devote all of your passion to research and make a living out of it. I would like to say that if you love your field of research, please stick to it and never give up or compromise just because you are a woman. As long as we persist, we will make a difference, and motivate more young women to be part of it. Every female researcher can contribute to the difference with their choice.

Li Jia: I think it applies to male faculty as well as female faculty. Pursue your dreams, explore the unknown, stay brave and energetic, and enjoy life to the fullest.


One friend of mine advised me to enjoy my moment of fame during the PhD defense instead of being nervous. Since then, I have understood that presenting my research is actually a fun and honorable moment because not every day one gets a chance to be heard and receive feedback from an expert audience.

My advice to young researchers would be: you have to like your research area to be passionate about it and make a difference. Good results do not come easy, be patient and never stop working towards your aim. It is good to break down a big goal into smaller steps to enjoy the progress and avoid frustration.

Yu Liuqian: Work hard, stay self-reliant and self-confident, and never bother to meet expectations or follow established rules.



To be sure, gender equality in academia still needs to be improved, but it is improving.

The Women Faculty Association (WFA) was established at HKUST in 2011 by a group of women teachers committed to promoting a diverse, inclusive, fair and intellectually dynamic campus.



WFA embraces all the efforts from the faculty, male or female, to promote diversity and equality in gender, discipline, culture and personal background at the levels of faculty, student and university. Moreover, WFA offers the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) scholarship, which aims to encourage female students to take courses in which women are still an underrepresented group.

Despite the challenges ahead, we remain committed to promoting gender equality and diversity. We thank all those who have fought for women’s rights, and I sincerely hope that women all over the world can “shine in their way”.

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