International Women’s Day 2017: improvements towards gender equality in science

In the third of our posts in our series of blog posts for International Women’s Day we asked our Associate Editors about improvements they are seeing towards gender equality, new initiatives and any institution, department or person who deserves specific praise in this area.

nathalie-buttNathalie Butt – I have seen big increases in awareness of, and talk about, gender equality issues in recent years, and the Athena Swann initiative is great. My supervisor, Professor Hugh Possingham has had a personal positive discrimination policy in place for years and has stated that he will keep employing predominantly women until there are equal numbers everywhere.

stephanie-januchowski-hartleyStephanie Januchowski-Hartley – The short answer is that there are diverse social, cultural and institutional practices, policies and patterns of behaviour that make women less likely to be rewarded in STEM fields. There are many people who have and continue to work, research and communicate about the issues facing women in STEM fields, and I believe that all people working in STEM fields should make themselves aware of these areas of work and the existing knowledge about the challenges facing women. In addition, social scientists like Dr Zuleyka Zevallos have highlighted diverse ways that organizations and individuals can, and already have begun to, tackle this problem. In an article on Nature Blogs, Dr Zevallos and co-authors highlight diversity training for hiring committees and mentorship programmes (like the one that British Ecological Society has developed) for graduate students and postdocs as two practical ways that organizations can work to overcome this problem. The authors also highlight the need to address stereotypes and their effects, and highlight the need for training to acknowledge and understand the existence of stereotypes. They highlight that active intervention at the institutional level, such as raising women up and demonstrating them as role models in their fields, also resulted in improvements in representation of women in STEM fields.

From my perspective there is a lot of work to do in our workplaces and professional societies. I am committed to improving my own working environment and processes within in it to encourage, support and retain woman.

Several steps I have taken include: a) holding a women in science discussion at a recent student conference; b) acting as a mentor for women colleagues in my workplace, even outside my direct area of study; c) I am a Woman in Ecology mentor through BES; d) I am involved in outreach programs in schools where I both give talks and engage with students about their science studies; and e) I started #DamWomen a social media hashtag and Google Group shared by women who are working on instream infrastructure (like dams, weirs, roads) and rivers. These are small individual steps, but together, and along with my commitments to institutional change within my workplace and professional societies, contribute to the broader effort that needs to be made.

cate-macinnis-ngCate Macinnis-Ng – At the University of Auckland, we have an Associate Dean Equity in the Faculty of Science who has been initiating some supportive initiatives around return to work after maternity leave amongst other activities. Our Dean recently emailed the faculty about gender balance (or imbalance). Females currently make up about 28% of our professorial staff, up from around 8% in 2009 but the conversion rate from research fellow (fixed-term) to lecturer (usually ongoing employment) drops from around 50% female to 35% female so there is still work to be done. Knowing that this is on the radar of the senior leadership is very encouraging. There are no easy fixes but having both top–down and bottom–up approaches is the only way to improve this problem. I’d say there is greater awareness around equity and it would be great to see an Athena SWAN or SAGE programme implemented here in New Zealand.

There is also growing awareness that gender is not the only equity issue here. For instance, the proportion of Maori and Pacific Islanders in science is lower than the wider population.

Traditional knowledge and engagement with these populations represents a valuable opportunity for conservation so we need to find ways to engage these communities in our science and learn from their ways of managing environmental problems to address our most pressing environmental problems.

ainhoa-magrachAinhoa Magrach – I think that it is important that this problem has been given more and more visibility, more studies are done and most funders take this into account by encouraging women to apply for funding. However I believe more should be done, starting from childhood where girls can start to build their confidence.

I think it is also important for young girls to see female scientists as role models so more support should be given to initiatives that bring female scientists into schools.

I would also give more support to organizations or institutions where groups of female researchers at different stages of their career share their experiences on how to balance everything.

elizabeth-nicholsElizabeth Nichols – I can’t point to specific initiatives, departments or people. But I can say that there is no substitute for women in positions of leadership. In my own research community, it’s rather a thrill that some of the most consistently thought-provoking conversations are with women.

romina-raderRomina Rader – I think improvements towards gender equality are happening and we are seeing more women in senior roles, which is great!

meredith-root-bernsteinMeredith Root-Bernstein – I’m too young to have noticed any temporal trends in my lifetime, but I have worked in several different countries. Here in France, all of the professors whom I want to work with or collaborate with are women, and not because I am specifically looking for women collaborators. Something seems to have happened about 25 years ago in French recruitment patterns that didn’t happen everywhere else, but I don’t know what it was.

margaret-stanleyMargaret Stanley – Nicola Gaston (Dept. Of Physics, University of Auckland, President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists) deserves specific praise for improvements towards gender equality in STEM. Nicola wrote a 2015 book on “Why Science is Sexist”. She demonstrates the extent of the unconscious bias towards female scientists and offers some solutions. Nicola has opened up the conversation around gender equality, and there’s been a general lift in New Zealand in requests for funding panels and conference panels to show gender equality.


Contributors to this post are:
Nathalie Butt, University of Queensland, Australia
Stephanie Januchowski-Hartley, Paul Sabatier University, France @ConnectedWaters
Cate Macinnis-Ng, University of Auckland, New Zealand @LoraxCate
Ainhoa Magrach, Estacion Biologica de Doñana, Spain @AinhoaMagrach
Elizabeth Nichols, Swarthmore College, USA @LizSNichols
Romina Rader, University of New England, Australia @rominatwi
Meredith Root-Bernstein, INRA, France
Margaret Stanley, University of Auckland, New Zealand @mc_stanley1

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