For International Women’s Day, we asked Sarah Dalrymple about her personal experiences as a woman in ecology and her views on what is required to help reach gender equality. This year’s theme is #EachforEqual.
Sarah is a Senior Lecturer in Conservation Biology at Liverpool John Moores University and sits on the Advisory Board for Applied Ecology Resources. She is also an Associate Editor for the new British Ecological Society journal, Ecological Solutions and Evidence.
I am not an expert in unconscious bias, I am an ecologist. But as a female ecologist I know first-hand that there is a problem with gender discrimination and equal engagement of women in ecology.
In 2018, I was a keynote speaker at a conference that used an online platform for taking questions. After one of the talks, an anonymous question was read out to the attendees (I paraphrase): “Is it okay for women to work at those sorts of field sites?” The speaker (a man) was completely taken aback and responded with (more paraphrasing) “Of course, some of my colleagues are women.”
We can only guess as to why the questioner felt that question needed asking but in doing so, they alerted the whole room to the fact that there are people in our community that query whether there is a place for them in core activities such as fieldwork. Whether it was a deliberate ploy to raise these issues or a genuine chance to voice their concerns, this example highlights some of the hidden biases in our discipline: some of us perceive obstacles to engaging in certain activities, whilst others do not even realise that those obstacles (perceived or real) might exist.
This year’s International Women’s Day has a theme of #EachforEqual which nicely summarises the responsibility we all have for looking out for discrimination. Even in the ecological community where gender representation is usually not too imbalanced, there are many hidden patterns of discrimination behind engagement which are perpetuated when we don’t realise they exist.
I have never wondered whether it’s okay for me to go a particular field site but it has crossed my mind that people might question my presence in other aspects of my work. The subliminal messages I receive and importantly, anticipate receiving on a daily basis is damaging and can affect my performance when giving presentations, teaching and speaking to new groups.
To name but a few examples I have had male students telling me how to use my computer even when I’m teaching them; often been prejudiced to be less authoritative or qualified than my male colleagues; and been asked to fetch envelopes, make coffee or take the minutes. These encounters undermine my position as a Senior Lecturer and undermine me as a woman.
So, what can we do?
Being aware of these problems and ensuring that we work in diverse groups that operate with parity is a first step; it engenders understanding where people are more likely to share their uncertainties. It demonstrates that there is room for everyone within our discipline.
But one of my top wishes is for male colleagues witnessing gender discrimination to recognise it and call it out without women having to. I wish that people are asked if they want to take on more work and invited to contribute, avoiding pigeonholing in roles that are associated with different genders and allowing people to make informed decisions about their own career progression. I wish that we all advocate for women’s abilities based on their technical capabilities and scientific rigour.
I don’t pretend that I have all the answers but when we are celebrating International Women’s Day this week, it’s really important that we all actively look for discrimination. Every single one of us can make it okay for women to go to whatever field sites they want to (literal or metaphorical). Whether the obstacles to participation are real or not (they are in most cases), it is the perception of obstacles that perpetuates the problems. But that is something we can all help with addressing.