International Women’s Day 2016: Perspectives from Adriana De Palma

For International Women’s Day, we asked Adriana De Palma about her career in science and the challenges and improvements she is seeing in STEM. You can read all of our posts for International Women’s Day here.

 Adriana has also written about her recent paper ‘Ecological traits affect the sensitivity of bees to land-use pressures in European agricultural landscapes’ in Journal of Applied Ecology here: ‘Ecological traits shape bee species’ fates in European agriculture

What made you want to pursue a career in science? Were there any female scientists in particular who inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?

Adriana De Palma
Adriana De Palma, Post-doctoral Researcher on the PREDICTS project at the Natural History Museum @adpalma

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have met so many inspiring people (men and women), encouraging me forwards in a scientific career. But one of my biggest inspirations is someone I never got the chance to meet: Miriam Rothschild. She was an exceptional entomologist, advocate for the environment and serial breaker of glass ceilings. Ceilings that included being the first woman to serve on the National Trust’s Committee for Conservation, the first woman to become a Trustee of the Natural History Museum, and being the first and only female president of the Royal Entomological Society. In no small part thanks to Miriam Rothschild, the Verrall Association of Entomologists (who had their annual Supper this month) now has an incredible number of female members of all ages, including me. Oh, and I love that Miriam wore white wellies everywhere. Amazing.

There has been an increasing focus on encouraging women to join STEM fields in recent years, but there is still work that needs to be done. What are the biggest problems facing the push towards gender equality within STEM fields today? What barriers are there to women entering STEM fields (at undergrad, postgrad, PhD or post-doc levels)?

Short-term contracts at the postdoc level are a major barrier, and not just for women. The Athena Swan Charter in the UK commits to “addressing the negative consequences of short-term contracts”, but such contracts are still prevalent.

Is there anything in particular that you are surprised hasn’t been fixed or improved?

Men dominate panels and speaker line-ups at some STEM conferences and events for no discernible reason. It’s a surprise that this wasn’t corrected a long time ago, but the British Ecological Society is really making an effort to change this. I’d also like to see much more transparency in pay at all career levels and in the number of female applicants for STEM positions. There certainly is transparency in the numbers of women that are interviewed for positions, but I still wonder whether people may be less likely to apply to male-dominated departments, making the skew self-perpetuating. We have certainly been making progress, though. Now we need to make a similar concerted effort to encourage the representation of different backgrounds in ecology.

Is there anything that you think institutions, journals, funders etc. should be doing to improve gender equality?

I think that institutions should make it clear what women at all levels can expect from their institution if they were to choose to have a child: what are their policies on maternity leave and pay? For students, it can be even more problematic. Even with sick leave, PhD students continue to receive their stipend while they’re away, but the funding is not extended for the remainder of the PhD (something that is not exactly clear from the official wording). That kind of instability and uncertainty can be difficult.

In recent years, what improvements towards gender equality have you seen in STEM fields? What changes, initiatives, actions etc. have you seen that impressed you?

I think the Athena Swan charter has been a big step in the right direction. It appreciates that encouraging more women to remain in STEM careers is not just about having children; though that’s undoubtedly part of it, it’s quite a bit more complicated than that. The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science programme has also done a fantastic job at increasing the visibility of researchers, and (I think and hope) inspiring many younger women to continue in STEM.

What advice would you give to female students or Early Career Researchers looking to make a career in academia?

 I’m very early in my career, but it’s already apparent that you must take every opportunity you can. I think one of the most valuable things I did was a policy placement at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology; my current research project (the next phase of PREDICTS) has been planned to make it as relevant as possible to policy, and I was able to bring that little bit extra experience to the table, which really helped secure my position. It’s also valuable to have a supportive PhD supervisor who can help you develop your career plan. I also think it’s important to know what you want from your career: do you want a certain length of contract? A certain level of pay? Do you need to stay in a certain geographic area? Going into academia does require sacrifices, so try to figure out what you want from the postdoc, and what you’ll accept. There’s no point making so many concessions that you’re unhappy. I actually only applied for postdocs that met my ‘important for a happy life’ list, and I was ready and willing to go into a permanent non-academic job if nothing came through. There are plenty of exciting and interesting options outside of the traditional academic career path, so keep your options open.

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