Today is International Women’s day, an annual event celebrating the achievements of women all over the world and helping to drive positive change to achieve gender parity.
The latest Global Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum reveals that progress towards closing the gender gap over the past year has been ambiguous at best. In the UK, for example, the pace of change has slowed over the past three years.
The World Economic Forum predicts that the gender gap won’t close entirely for another 170 years. In response, the 2017 IWD campaign is asking everyone to #BeBoldForChange to spur faster change.
In this blog post, some of our female Associate Editors offer their perspectives on the recent changes they have observed for women in science, and share the experiences that shaped and inspired their careers.
What made you want to pursue a career in science? Were there any female scientists who inspired you?
“I always wanted to work on animals in tropical ecosystems. Growing up surrounded by some of the UK’s ancient woodlands, watching Attenborough’s “Trials of life” and reading Durrell’s books on wildlife collection and the emergence of the conservation movement I could only envisage myself working on conservation relevant research in the tropics.”
“My parents always encouraged me to travel and broaden my horizons by experiencing different cultures and landscapes. There started my love for people and wildlife that inhabit different ecosystems, and how to preserve this important, yet fragile link that binds us humans to our natural world.
Beyond the continuous support of my family, it is an almost random encounter with Professor Emmanuelle Cam at the University of Toulouse in France some 15 years ago that changed my life forever and ultimately shaped my career. She nurtured my love for wildlife science while teaching me statistics and demography with patience and dedication. I owe Emmanuelle so much, much more than words can say.
While doing my PhD at the Max Planck Institute for demographic Research, I met my husband David Koons, also a population ecologist. He has inspired my love for population ecology ever since and has fully supported my career choices, just like I have his. Having a partner in life that supports my career as a female scientist is the best confidence boost I could have ever asked for. I feel lucky and forever grateful for his support in what is not the easiest career path to follow.
Today, I am happy to report that I am surrounded by so many inspiring women in science that it is impossible for me to keep track of all the positive female influences in my academic career and personal life.”
“I had great lecturers, supervisors, and mentors throughout my career. All of my supervisors and mentors have actually been male, but all of them treated me as a scientist, regardless of gender, and gave me every opportunity they could. I was also inspired by a postdoc during my PhD. She had two kids during my PhD and split the return to work with her partner (both working 0.8) so that they could both pursue the careers they loved and spend time with their family. My husband and I now do the same.”
“I really enjoyed science at school and I was inspired by some excellent teachers in chemistry, physics and maths. I pursued a career in science because I just continued studying the subjects that I really enjoyed. I did a PhD because of a module that I really enjoyed as an undergraduate in mathematical biology and I was inspired by the idea of using my mathematics to solve real world problems.”
“At school, science and maths were what I was good at. I actually found maths easier, but the only job I could think of that might require maths was working in a bank. I didn’t really know what a career in science would entail, but I imagined doing something practical in a lab or with animals, the possibilities seemed eminently more appealing than banking. After my zoology degree at the University of Liverpool I naively thought that I would find a science job, and after a year of working in bakery, sending off fruitless job applications, I realized that if I wanted to “do” science I would have to get a PhD, so that’s what I did. Once I started the PhD I couldn’t imagine ever doing anything else and I haven’t looked back since.
I can’t say I was inspired by female scientists to pursue a career in science. Female scientists just weren’t on my radar. I don’t recall any female lecturers as an undergraduate, and as a PhD student at the University of Stirling, there were two that I recall (and one of those was in the maths department). I can’t say I even registered their absence. Male scientists were just the norm. I don’t know if this had an effect on me subconsciously, but I don’t recall ever thinking that I would have difficulty pursuing a career in science as a woman. I think my assumption was that any gender imbalance was due to historic discrimination or social mores, would soon change and wouldn’t have a direct effect on me.
My first experience of a female mentor was during my 3rd postdoctoral position at the University of Cambridge with Dr Rebecca Kilner. The transition from postdoc to lecturer has high rates of female attrition, potentially due to the timing. Being in uncertain contract positions doesn’t sit well with the desire to start a family. Becky is an amazing scientist and was a very supportive supervisor. She gave me great encouragement to keep on applying for lectureships, fellowships etc. and was so encouraging she made me believe I could do it, even when my confidence was receiving regular blows in the form of politely worded rejection letters!”
“I was inspired to work in ecology because of the field work. When I was 16, my dad, a filmmaker, took me with him to Northern Quebec. At that time, he was filming a documentary on caribou and thought I might be interested in helping him with the camera and other gear. When we got there, I found that helping the caribou biologist was way more interesting!
Later in my career (postdoc), I was really inspired by Loeske Kruuk and Anne Charmantier. They are both incredibly good researchers and have managed to have a family on top of this.”
“I have always known that I wanted to work outdoors as much as possible, and to try to understand the natural world. However, I had no idea that one could make a career of this until I went to university (the careers advice I received at school was to consider working for a pest control company!). During my BSc at Edinburgh University, I was lucky enough to be taught by many inspiring lecturers, but two in particular made a big difference: Dr Liz Rogers and Prof Linda Partridge both encouraged me and provided the sort of role models that made this career seem achievable, and I am forever grateful for having encountered such great mentors at that early stage.”
In recent years, what changes in gender equality have you observed in science in general, and in ecology specifically?
“I live in China, and am one of only 3 female group leaders in an institute which must have almost 40 male group leaders, and the joke that “a women with a PhD is the third gender” was common until I started questioning it.
On the whole I think it is still much harder to be a women in science in most places, the expectations are higher (especially around other departmental activities, and important activities which are rarely acknowledged in review), and the criteria for judging or even inviting to “co-author” higher. Sadly though I think this is strongest in many developing countries it is an issue almost everywhere, and we certainly had gender related issues when I worked for the CSIRO in Australia. Globally I think Europe and the US have dealt with the issue relatively well, but elsewhere it is much more mixed.
I think things are generally improving everywhere, but many people are oblivious to the issues that still exist, even when shown the published literature – and you can talk to almost any women in science and they are likely to have examples of when their gender was a disadvantage for their research or career, but I think that as awareness grows people are confronting this, and efforts to create family friendly initiatives and flexibility have also helped to a degree.
I would like to highlight that the articles flagging up harassment should focus more on providing a supportive infrastructure to stop these events occurring, rather than alienating people once it has occurred. There must be better ways to ensure these events do not happen in the first place.”
“As a European, I define myself as a population ecologist, but in the US where I work, I find that referring to my academic position as being a wildlife biologist speaks to people more when I introduce myself. This likely has to do with a long-tradition of wildlife management and conservation in North America. Classic academic entities in North American Universities known as “Fish and Wildlife departments” have a long tradition of being male-biased (e.g. how could a woman possibly know anything about harvest management?). But the days of men dominating wildlife management and conservation feel long gone today when I see an equal ratio of females in my undergraduate classes, in graduate school, in state agencies and academic positions. There are still taxa-specific groups where females are underrepresented (e.g. the last waterfowl management conference I attended counted <5% females), but these groups and men are very well aware of these discrepancies and should be praised for how fiercely committed they are to improving these ratios.”
“I am involved in Athena SWAN for my institution and although I do worry about it being a tick box exercise for some staff I can see some inspirational women working hard to raise the profile of this agenda and making some real change on the ground and to attitudes.
I think one of the important issues is to raise awareness of behaviours which might hold people back. For example, I know that women, in general, often don’t put themselves forward for things unless they are very sure they can do it whereas men are more confident in their own abilities. I now try to apply that learning to myself and think about why I am shying away from a task. That means stepping outside of my comfort zone more often. So far that has been a brilliant thing to do!”
“The changes have been immense. There is still a huge way to go but certainly at lecturer level there is much more gender equality. Now the barrier seems to be promotion to higher levels. In the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln we have 40% women at L/SL, but only 27% at PL/Reader and currently no females amongst our 7 professors.”
Ecology has always been a discipline with lots of female interest at undergraduate level but it has been a painfully slow process to see that translate into senior female researchers. We are getting somewhere now though, and initiatives like Athena Swan have really helped – mostly in shining a spotlight on the issues and encouraging their debate. We all need to recognise unconscious bias and find ways to address the problems it creates, and I think we are getting better at this, although not fast or far enough yet.
What changes, initiatives or actions have you seen that impressed you? Is there anyone, or any institution, department, organisation, etc., who you feel deserves specific praise in this area?
“At Utah State University where I currently work, all students and faculty, male or female, greatly benefit from the Center for woman and gender; their moto: “We strive to create a professional and social climate focused on enhancing opportunities for women and men. CWG has a strong social justice mission, and all students, faculty, and advocates who are interested in exploring and addressing the challenges of inter-sectionalities (gender and ethnicity; gender and culture; gender and religion, etc.) will find an intellectual home with us.”
I believe this group has considerably improved relationships between sexes, ethnicities, individuals with different sexual orientations and religions. This is vital given the current political climate in the United States of America today.”
“Our Pro Vice Chancellor Research at Deakin University (Prof Lee Astheimer) found out I was taking mat leave for my first child and paid for me to have a research fellow full time for a year out of central university funds, so that my projects could keep running and my career wouldn’t take as much of a hit. This is now being turned into a formal program at the uni. My family and partner have also been critical to me being able to continue in science. Their support, both at work (accompanying me on international conference trips and field work) and at home, are just as important as any institutional program I’ve encountered.”
“Thumbs up to small-scale conferences and workshops for providing opportunities to interact informally and exchange views and suggestions with other researchers sharing similar interests, to mentoring systems that provide newcomers with access to social information about our (sometimes complex) institutions, and to all women who are initiating ambitious, novel, or risky research projects. Your passion is a fuel for our own actions.”
“I am currently head of our school’s Athena SWAN committee and so I am familiar with the actions we are trying to employ to improve gender equality. One of our actions was to analyse our school’s workload model. We identified that women did more teaching on average than men in the school and our head of school is trying to address this imbalance. We are also trying to address barriers to promotion. It is clear that women are less likely to put themselves forward for promotion and so we have shifted our yearly staff assessments to earlier in the year, before the promotion round, so that the head of school can assess whether staff seem to be approaching the criteria for promotion and encourage those with the requisite experience to apply.”
If you could travel back in time, what career advice would you give to your younger self?
“Nothing worth doing is ever going to be easy, and learn to forgive and be easy on yourself. I think many of us can be much harder on ourselves than we are on others, and it is very easy to develop bad habits (i.e. overworking) I think helping people develop a good work-life balance from the start would help people enjoy their work more-and probably retain more women in science.”
Yes, you can ;-)”
“Sleep” (currently on maternity leave with my second child)
“Take opportunities when they arise if you can; do the best that you can do and make sure you are treating other people fairly; spend less time thinking about the things you have not managed to do and more time thinking about the things that you have!”
“Publish well and early, go to conferences, meet people, get involved. Do what you enjoy. A career in academia is challenging and can be stressful, but is offset by the fact that you can study something that really interests you.”
“Don’t spend too much time comparing yourself to other people’s track records! This is precious time that you should spend thinking about Science. Also, do not underestimate the joy of having a family even if it will inevitably decrease the time you have to think about anything…”
“Be open to opportunities and spend as much time in the field as you can, because the best insights always come from really knowing your study species.”