When Ann and I rode into Hanoi from the airport last Sunday, we saw that the whole city was full of banners proclaiming "Vietnam Women's Week 2010". We were glad to see that an entire week (not just one day) is devoted to recognizing the contributions of Vietnamese women.So on the occasion of Women's Week I want to congratulate our women friends and colleagues on their achievements in science, technology, medicine, and all areas of the economy and society.
During the 25 years of the Kovalevskaia Prize in Vietnam, approximately 15
research teams (led by women) and more than twice as many individual winners have received the Prize.This large group of research leaders represent almost every area of science, technology, and medicine.Their contributions range from the most abstruse areas of theoretical physics to the most immediate problems of agriculture, applied chemistry, and disease control.Altogether these women have written a whole new chapter in the long history of pioneering women of Vietnam.That history goes back thousands of years, to the great Hai Ba Trung, who led some of the early rebellions against foreign aggression.It continues to the present, when the major challenges facing the country are no longer military threats, but rather are in the scientific, economic, and cultural spheres.
At present the Vietnamese people and government are immersed in a lively debate about the direction of higher education.The stakes in this debate are very large, because university education is a crucial part of the formation of the next generation of leaders and thinkers.Unfortunately, almost all of the participants in this debate have been men, and almost all of the participants -- including the foreign so-called "experts" who offer advice to the government -- have ignored the fundamental issue of gender equity.But it is essential that the reform of higher education include an increased commitment to women's equality in all areas of science, technology, and other fields.The 2007 Law on Gender Equality calls for this, and it is well known that a country cannot meet its full potential unless it has the equal participation of women, who make up 52% of the population of Vietnam.
For example, a new policy allows universities to admit applicants who do not receive the highest scores on the entrance examinations and charge them much higher tuition fees.I wonder if it is true in Vietnam -- as in many other countries -- that this type of policy favors males because families are more likely to pay the high fees for a son than for a daughter.Of course, the government officials who agreed to the new policy had no desire to discriminate against young women.However, policies often have unintended consequences.If the new tuition fee policy has the effect of favoring male university applicants, the government should have a second policy that counterbalances it by favoring female applicants.That is, universities must give female applicants a preference in the form of a certain number of extra points.This would restore gender equity to university admissions and support the goals of the Law on Gender Equality.
In conclusion, I wish to congratulate the Kovalevskaia Prizewinners of 2008 and 2009 -- as well as the prizewinners from the earlier 23 years -- on their achievements and their dedication to the progress of Vietnam and the wellbeing of its people.
II. Speech by Dr. Ann Hibner Koblitz, Professor of Women and Gender Studies at Arizona State University and Director of the Kovalevskaia Fund:
We are very honored to receive the Friendship Medal in recognition of the work of the Kovalevskaia Fund by the Government of Vietnam.The 25 years of the Kovalevskaia Prize have been a time of tremendous change and progress for Vietnam, the Vietnam Women's Union, and women scientists.I remember when the first prizes were awarded, on the occasion of the Southeast Asian Seminar on Women in Science that took place in Hanoi in January 1987.At that time, the VWU offices were a tiny fraction of the space they now occupy, and the Vietnam Women's Museum consisted of one display case of artifacts.Scientific institutes were functioning on shoestring budgets, and scientists were proud of cobbling together equipment out of spare parts.In our time conditions for scientific work, while not ideal, are vastly improved from those of the 1980s.
The Kovalevskaia Fund and the VWU are working to make the impact of the prizes even greater.Every two years we cosponsor the Get-Togethers, during which excellent women science students meet with Kovalevskaia Prizewinners and visit their laboratories and institutes.This is a useful first step.
But stronger efforts are needed.Young people now are greatly influenced by imported movies, the Internet, and Western consumerism.Unfortunately, young people now tend to shun scientific careers, preferring instead to enter business or some other high-paying profession.Now more than ever Vietnam needs to attract young people into the scientific and scholarly professions so that the country can continue to develop its own solutions for technical problems and chart an independent course.But young people are not likely to choose such careers unless they have contact with practicing scientists who can act as role models and foster their interest in serious intellectual pursuits.
For this reason the Kovalevskaia Fund is working with the VWU to encourage Kovalevskaia Prizewinners to develop plans to visit schools and universities and talk with young women about scientific and technical careers.The prizewinners can convey to young people the non-material satisfactions of scientific work --- the pleasure of finding a type of bacteria that can safely clean up oil spills, for example, or the joy of coming up with plant preparations that are less toxic, cheaper, and more sustainable than the petrochemically-derived pharmaceuticals imported from abroad.
In the U.S., the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) sponsors Kovalevskaia High School Days.Women mathematicians go into secondary schools for a day-long series of activities with girls.They give talks on famous women mathematicians, speak of the many careers that require advanced mathematical training, and encourage young women to think seriously about scientific and technical career options.These activities, which have been going on for almost thirty years, have produced excellent results.I have met several young mathematicians and computer scientists who traced their decision to become scientists back to Kovalevskaia Day activities and other programs of the AWM.The Association for Women in Science (AWIS) and the Association for Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) have similar programs.
There are other possibilities for Kovalevskaia Prizewinners to be mentors for young people.For example, Prof. Pham Thi Tran Chau, who won the Kovalevskaia Prize in 1988, organized a club for women biology students at Hanoi University.The students associate with professors and grad students, discuss research and professional activities, and integrate themselves into the scientific community from an early point in their studies.
Another way to help aspiring women scientists would be undergraduate research internships.Kovalevskaia Prizewinners could invite promising students into their laboratories and institutes so that the students could be exposed to the working world of scientific researchers on a daily basis.In all cases, the prizewinners would be acting as mentors and role models, encouraging young people to choose a life of scientific investigation and teaching, and perhaps someday win the Kovalevskaia Prize themselves.
I want to conclude by thanking our many friends in the Vietnam Women's Union for a quarter century of fruitful collaboration.It has truly been a pleasure to work with you all, and I look forward to working with you on the tasks that lie ahead.