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Gender inequality in the sciences: Why is it still with us?

victorianwomenWomen make up 50% of our community. That should include science. There are simple steps universities and research institutes can take to make it happen, says Kate Christian.

When I was struggling though my double major in chemistry back in the early 1970s I was a rarity. I was one of two women. On the more difficult days, when the environment was feeling particularly male dominated or when I was being particularly patronized, I would try to imagine what it had been like for my grandmother when she was studying to be a doctor at the University of Sydney, straight after World War 1, or for her five sisters, who all trained for professional jobs. Compared to theirs, my situation was a breeze.

Women had the vote in 1902 in Australia, but they weren’t yet considered equal.

More than four decades on, I am doing a PhD. My topic: “The challenges faced by early-career researchers in the sciences in Australia.” I’m finding that women still face many more challenges than men. Things have improved dramatically since 1919, even more since 1973 when I graduated, but not nearly enough.

The positives? Many countries across the world now have equal numbers of men and women entering STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) courses, and, in some cases, a majority of women. It is no longer extraordinary for a woman to be a doctor, or a scientist. The gender discrimination that extraordinary women like Rosalind Franklin or Marie Curie faced about the merits of their scientific contributions would not happen today.

So why is gender equality in science and medicine still a struggle? It doesn’t make sense. Reading for my literature review has been a depressing experience: there is overwhelming evidence of the same “Daversity” (men choose to recruit other men, resulting in not enough women and, interestingly in some cases, a swing towards men named Dave) all over the world.

In many countries – if not most – women are still discriminated against in terms of salary  (there is a 24% salary difference between genders in the US), training, promotions (you’re 35% less likely to be promoted if you’re working as a woman scientist in Mexico), research funding, opportunities to go to academic meetings or sit on committees. Academic and medical workplaces rarely accommodate women with families. Gender bias even affects the number of women who get to ask questions at conferences (men ask 1.8 questions for every question from a woman). Worldwide, women only make up about 15% of senior leadership positions. Given that the numbers of men and women are roughly 50% at undergraduate level, there is no reason this should not hold all the way through.

Before people get cross, crying out that we need a meritocracy, you’re right, we do – in principle.

Unfortunately, the principle isn’t helping sufficiently at the moment; too much change is required. Both my job (working with early career researchers in medical research), and in my PhD reading, are allowing me to see a broad picture where there are way too many young women who are having a tough time of it. There are some women with exceptional talent, or women who work in exceptional organisations who get through to the “other side.” I want to fight for the people who start up the ladder but can’t climb any further because there isn’t enough infrastructure there to support them.

I believe that some of that infrastructure might need to be a skewed system for a few years, while we try to establish some balance. There is no correct or easy answer. In spite of repeated calls for change, change is taking place too slowly and extra momentum is needed to spur it on its way.

womanpullingSo, for the fix we need now, faculty and institute heads: please pay attention. We need change urgently. This change needs to start at the top, and that means with you.

The following simple and inexpensive steps could make a huge difference:

  • Improve your institutional culture. Make it clear you are working towards involvement of half men and half women for everything. That means aiming for equal numbers for student and staff positions; for holding scholarships; for presenting at meetings; for receiving awards, promotions, and serving on committees. The Walter and Eliza Hall Research Institute of Medical Research in Australia sets a great example.
  • Address conscious and unconscious bias in your institution. Educate your staff to be aware of it. Educate them, too, about the benefits of a representative workforce so women don’t have to put up with discrimination. You need a meritocracy: no-one should have to hear “you were only hired to make up the numbers.”
  • Provide female mentors for your female staff, and encourage them to take on female mentees, to create a culture where women help one another. While women are still in the minority, evidence shows this will help strengthen the resolve of young women. Ensure they are aware of available mentorship programmes in the department and online.
  • Improve leadership development for your female staff. Women tend to bring a different set of leadership skills to the workplace and so provide a more balanced environment. Make sure they are included in generic management training, the “soft skills” which include looking after their teams, conflict resolution and how to be good mentors. Having women in leadership positions provides role models for younger staff and inspires them to take the same pathway.
  • Provide solutions for work-life integration. Actively prevent late and early meetings, and make it routine for people with family responsibilities to have flexible working hours.
    Expect pregnant and breastfeeding women to bring babies to conferences. Provide childcare (in a local situation they can pay – you can make it available). Provide comfortable family rooms for breast feeding or expressing.
  • Consult with your teams to work out ways to provide support for child care, nanny-share networks, and backups for sick child or emergency situations. Provide financial support for childcare for conference attendance, both for children left at home and babies taken out of town with their parents. I’ve left these points about childcare until last because doing it well does require money, but there are stepping stones which are better than nothing, and which come at a much lower cost.

Your investments will be rapidly rewarded by an increase in female staff and the benefits they bring. You need to show women, 50% of your community, that their needs matter as much as the needs of the men. This will increase job satisfaction and employee motivation. Happy employees are productive employees. Together, in your well-rounded workforce, you can all keep your focus on good science.

Kate Christian has worked in health and medical research for more than 30 years, mostly for organisations conducting and supporting cancer research. Scientifically trained, she has chosen not to work in a laboratory, but to use her scientific background and a organisation skills to manage research projects and assist scientists with the management of their research. Kate is the author of Keys to Running Successful Research Projects: All the Things They Never Tell You. You can follow her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

See also:

Lone-parent scientist
Isolation and alienation force female researchers out of US tech jobs
Tackling the #manel problem
The struggles of female and underrepresented scientists
Race- and gender-based bias persists in US science
Child on the horizon




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