In this feature-length blog post for International Women’s Day, we asked some of our female Editors about their careers in science and the challenges and improvements they are seeing in STEM. You can read all of our posts for International Women’s Day here.
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 (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)?
Shelley Arnott – I didn’t know I wanted a career in science until I was well along the path to having one! I was fascinated by science from an early age but the primary reason that I ended up with a career in science was that I took advantage of opportunities to do interesting things and that lead to doing ecological research. Sadly, there was a dearth of female role models in the early stages of my career but I was fortunate to have several male advisors who were very supportive and encouraging. And, most important, I had an exceptional group of female colleagues during my PhD who were bright, motivated, supportive, inspiring, and generally awesome. They have continued to be an important source of inspiration and support during the past 20+ years as we have navigated the various stages of our careers.
Susan Cheyne – I wanted to understand the natural world in order to help protect it. I have always been fascinated with recording the wildlife that I saw and where I saw them, especially on safari in Africa where I lived for 5 years as a child. Clear, evidence-based science is needed to inform conservation actions for wildlife and habitats. This was brought home to me by pioneering female researchers Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. Not only were they women in a very male-dominated field, they approached the problems of primate behavioural ecology differently to the establishment and pushed our understanding forward.
Jennifer Firn – I pursued a career in science because I want to protect our forests, grasslands and native ecosystems, and growing up in a small town in Canada dependent on the forest industry I learned quickly if you wanted to do this you have to also consider social, economic and cultural implications. Maybe some would criticise me as naive but I want to change the world so I hope one day the science I am conducting and the students that I teach will have a significant impact on how we manage and restore ecosystems. My year 12 Chemistry and Biology teacher Dr Bartel had worked in cancer research and she inspired me to want to be involved in making new knowledge. Dr Bartel challenged her students with complicated open ended investigations and she gave all of her students the unique opportunity to build confidence and a passion for this challenge. I would love to run into Dr Bartel one day as I would shake her hand and let her know that she helped direct the course of my life by inspiring me with her expert science teaching.
Julia Jones – It was always the most obviously exciting career – finding stuff out is never going to get dull (as long as you are finding stuff out about things you are interested in). Initially I think it was probably my dad (a plant scientist) who demonstrated what interesting careers there are in science and research – I spent a lot of time around greenhouses and labs as a kid and they felt like places important things happened. Later I had some key mentors (both male and female) but one particular senior woman was inspirational as she modelled the type of academic (and human being) I wanted to be.
Nathalie Pettorelli – When I grew up, I didn’t know that the job I do existed. I did, however, know that education could eventually get me into a job that had the characteristics I was after. Namely the opportunity to travel, and a clear lack of routine as I can get easily bored. The opportunity to be creative, to develop my own ideas and projects, and to take responsibility for these. The opportunity to meet people from all over the planet, share experience and work collaboratively. And finally, the opportunity to do something useful to more than just me. There aren’t that many jobs that can match these criteria, but a job as a scientist definitively delivers on all of these.
Verena Trenkel – With a bad memory but good logical and analytical skills it seemed to me that science would be one of the areas I would be able to excel in. The gender of scientists has never played any role for me. My (male) biology teacher at school was influential for my choice of subject when I first went to university. If at all, women standing up for their rights and opportunities inspired me to go my way rather than any particular female scientist.
Yolanda Wiersma – For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be an ecologist. I may not always have used that term, but I wanted to be some kind of scientist who worked with animals and out in nature. I was definitely inspired by seeing documentaries portraying women like Jane Goodall and Sylvia Earle. In my teen years, I read about all 3 of the “Trimates” and learned about Dian Fossey’s work in Vriunga and Birutė Galdkas’ work in Indonesia. I didn’t end up working in tropical field locations, or even doing animal behaviour work but I was definitely inspired by these three women.
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?
Susan Cheyne – There is no doubt that the salary gap issue is a big concern for women who want to join STEM fields and undoubtedly puts women off. The ‘publish or perish’ culture at universities is also creating a great deal of pressure (for all) but especially for women who may want a career break to have a family. Options to return to STEM following a career break are few and far between and this needs to change.
Jennifer Firn – This is a tough one as I think women are doing well in science and that a lot of the most impenetrable barriers were broken by women through the ages long before my scientific career – and I don’t think female scientists of the 19th century are given enough credit for all that they accomplished to facilitate genuine opportunities for generations upon generations of female scientists.
Julia Jones – Personally I am a bit uncomfortable about too much focus on gender equality. Firstly –what is the ‘right number’ of females in STEM careers? Also is gender the most important diversity issue – what about underrepresentation of people from certain socio-economic backgrounds or certain ethnic minorities? Much of what is being done in the name of gender equality is helpful but I don’t think the focus should be gender. For example people with caring responsibilities (e.g. for kids or aged relatives) may find aspects of academic life challenging and so it’s good that we are working to identify and reduce such issues but framing it as a gender issue just embeds the idea that caring is a woman’s responsibility.
Nathalie Pettorelli – Most of the barriers faced by women considering a career in STEM are those erected by our societal expectations. Two examples of these come into my mind: a recent report by CaSe showed how parents mostly don’t encourage their daughters to have a career in STEM, but have no problems encouraging their sons to do so. A recent survey commissioned by the For Women In science Program then showed that 67% of Europeans think that women do not possess the required capabilities in order to access high-level scientific positions. This idea that women shouldn’t do science, and certainly not at a high level, is still very much part of the collective psyche and leads many women to eventually feel that they do not belong.
Yolanda Wiersma – As a female in science, I will confess to feeling somewhat awkward about discussions around barriers to women’s abilities to pursue careers in science. I was extremely lucky in that I can honestly say that despite having male supervisors and male-dominated advisory committees for both my MSc and PhD, I never felt my gender was a barrier. My mentors all treated me, and all my lab mates, as scientists first. I only realized after I graduated what a rare attitude these men exemplified. Since joining the ranks of the professoriate, I’ve been surprised how unique my experience was. I’ve heard stories from female peers who felt they had to fight much harder than their male peers, and were victims of various kinds of sexism. What disappoints me more is when female graduate students approach me asking for advice about surmounting gender barriers; barriers that I never faced more than a decade ago.
What barriers are there to women entering STEM fields (at undergrad, postgrad, PhD or post-doc levels)?
Shelley Arnott – Female students comprise the majority of many of our undergraduate courses in biology and this continues through post-graduate programs. Unfortunately, very few women end up with careers in academia. For example, in my own department, less than 20% of the faculty is female. It’s difficult to pin-point the causes and I suspect there are myriad reasons. This ‘death by a thousand cuts’ results because their achievements are less valued, they are less likely to self-promote and more likely to be burdened by committee work, they are often over-looked for awards and plenary talks, they aren’t part of the ‘boys club’, they are burdened with an unequal share in family/child care, they have partners in science and face challenges acquiring jobs for both people, they have been alienated because of sexual harassment, and probably many other reasons I haven’t considered. Many of these barriers are recognized and there have been steps taken to eliminate or reduce them, but much more can be done.
Susan Cheyne – I think there is a degree of chicken and egg going on here: if young women do not see older women in STEM, they are not being exposed to the options at school/undergraduate level so are perhaps less likely to consider STEM as a career. Women in STEM should engage with younger women through careers days, science events, school visits to help promote STEM fields and debunk some of the myths. Recruitment should be carried out by a panel/committee of equal gender ratios (as far as possible).
Jennifer Firn –In my opinion there are fewer barriers all the way up to postdoc levels and the statistics have shown that women make up a higher proportion of individuals in science at these entry levels. Barriers that I honestly have a lot of trouble understanding come later at the Professorial level where in Australia for example 80% of Professors are male. I think we need to inspire students whether male or female from primary school onwards with science. The scientific approach to problem solving is an important skill now and into the future even if individuals do not become scientists. Senior science subjects should be mandatory like English and mathematics.
Verena Trenkel – The biggest barriers are in our heads. It is a lack of imagination of what we could achieve which stops us from stepping outside the familiar environment and more traditional careers. A wider presence of female scientists would help to charter this unknown territory of a STEM career, so we need more women at all levels and in all disciplines!
Yolanda Wiersma – I do know that I found the pre-tenure years (with 2 pre-school aged kids at home) to be challenging and stressful. My productivity did suffer, and I struggled to stay on the grants bandwagon. I couldn’t have done it without a supportive spouse (also an academic but in a different faculty) and an understanding department. I’ve learned that this isn’t the case everywhere. Even with the supports I had, I failed to get my main NSERC (Natural Science and Engineering Research Council) grant renewed. A sympathetic female colleague at another university commiserated (she’d experienced the same) and said that it was “death by a thousand paper cuts” – that is women may not experience overt sexism (my story) but still face many small challenges that can accumulate and create challenges that men do not face as often.
Is there anything in particular that you are surprised hasn’t been fixed or improved?
Shelley Arnott – I’m disappointed that there are still fewer women being hired in science faculties. Given the number of very talented women graduating with PhDs, we should have departments with gender equity.
Susan Cheyne – I do find it disappointing that this issue still exists, equally the general perception that anyone in a STEM career is a big of a geek. In this sense all STEM people (male and female) need to work to make our careers and what they mean accessible to the general public.
Jennifer Firn –Every now and again, I am surprised at how I am treated differently because I am a women – sometimes it is very confronting, but the only thing that I can control is how I respond to these moments – and my personal policy is to show grace under fire, later I might need to debrief about these moments and take stock but I am very careful at the time to either ignore them or speak up if it is important. This can be very tricky knowing when to stand up and when to brush things off but I keep trying to learn from these moments.
Nathalie Pettorelli – Where to start? Pay gap? Sexism in science? Lack of equal quotas for both parents when considering parental leave? There’s just too many to cite!
Verena Trenkel – Actually, I have the impression we are regressing. Because a young woman can take up more or less any career today it seems there’s less determination to actually do so.
Yolanda Wiersma – I think the main challenge still facing women in academia is juggling a career and family. Again, I’ve been lucky here. My department head (male) models work–life balance (once, early in my career, I watched him abruptly terminate a departmental meeting because he had to go pick up his son from school) and in my department we have a number of husband–wife teams who effectively share career and family responsibilities. Thus, no one balks when a meeting has to be rescheduled due to a sick child, and no eyebrows are raised if one is not in the lab at all on weekends.
Is there anything that you think institutions, journals, funders etc. should be doing to improve gender equality?
Shelley Arnott – We need to target women in faculty positions, invite women to give keynote talks, recruit women to write invited papers, and encourage women to apply for awards. We also need to do more to provide a positive work environment. There are still barriers associated with sexual harassment or discrimination. We need to have strong policies in place and zero tolerance for behaviours that marginalize people.
Susan Cheyne – All these organisations should strive to have a 50:50 ratio for males and females in all roles at all levels within their organisation. Many universities and departments are now proudly promoting themselves as Athena Swan affiliated and this should be encouraged at all STEM related organisations and not only at the Bronze level. That is a good start but needs to be considered as the bare minimum. All big organisations should have an equality division to ensure compliance and should have a clear and enforceable Equal Opportunities Policy which is regularly scrutinised. However, perceptions and misconceptions often begin at home and in school and this needs tackling.
Jennifer Firn – I think the barrier is still in how we define track records and how challenging it can be for women to take breaks to have and raise children and still maintain a flourishing career in science. We have solutions like considering performance relative to opportunity but this can be difficult to assess qualitatively because at the end of the day if a male has worked without a break for 10 years then they will have built up a significant track record. I am not sure what the solution is but we have to trial new ways of making this equitable for women who take important breaks in their careers to raise families.
Nathalie Pettorelli – Absolutely! My top 1 recommendation for journals, funders and institutions: systematically ask for a male AND female name when asking for nominations of any kind.
Verena Trenkel – It is not only gender equality that requires attention. Everybody should be encouraged to develop their talents and skills. STEM fields need a great diversity of personalities!
In recent years, what improvements towards gender equality have you seen in STEM fields? What changes, initiatives and actions have you seen that impressed you? Is there anyone, or any institution or department who you feel deserves specific praise in this area?
Shelley Arnott – One of the biggest changes that I have noticed is that scientific societies have strived for gender equity on their boards, committees, editorial boards, and for award recipients and keynote speakers. It has been exciting to go to meetings where female scientists have a strong presence.
Susan Cheyne – More back-to-work schemes for women who have taken a career break are appearing, as are more properly staffed crèches in universities. The Athena Swan Charter by the Equality Challenge Unit is a very positive step forward. Any university which has encouraged departments to obtain Athena Swan awards as well as the institutional ones deserves specific praise in this area.
Jennifer Firn – Queensland University of Technology and many Australian Universities are participating in Athena Swan and I think this is a very important process that could make a big difference.
Julia Jones – I think efforts to reduce teaching load (or give a teaching-free period) to those returning from leave is really valuable to make it easier to retain a research career but again let’s not frame it as a benefit ‘for women’ (men and women have children and elderly parents) – as shared parental leave gets more common hopefully this will change naturally.
Nathalie Pettorelli –Soapbox Science of course! Witnessing the Soapbox initiative growing each year is a delight: every year, more and more women in STEM support this initiative, giving it time, passion, and enthusiasm. This diverse network is an amazing resource: to access it, you only need to become a speaker at one of the annual events. I would recommend all women in STEM to join this crowd. Without any doubt, the Athena Swan Charter managed by the Equality Challenge Unit deserves specific praise. This Unit has done more than anyone else in the UK to help address the challenges faced by women in science over the past decade. They deserve immense praise.
What advice would you give to female students or Early Career Researchers looking to make a career in academia?
Shelley Arnott – I think the most important advice I have is to stay on task in the face of challenges, cultivate a support network among your peers, and find a positive mentor who can help you navigate your career. Aim high, pursue awards, nominate your female colleagues, promote other women, look for novel solutions, and don’t give up.
Susan Cheyne – If you want some help or support, make sure you ask for it, if you need training in something make sure your employer/university provides this. Use social media to stay involved with equality issues and women in science issues/events. Give back, if you feel you could have benefited from something when you were pursuing a STEM career, the likelihood is there are young women out there feeling the same. Be bold, be curious and do not ever assume you cannot do something and support other people in STEM – especially women!
Jennifer Firn – Spend as much time as you can reading, and loving the science that you are doing – that is what the job is all about in the end. If you are outstanding at the science then there will be no barriers to your career because even when stumbling blocks occur you are driven and resilient enough to brush those off and keep going. Believing 100% in what you are doing and finding the best questions, identifying and carrying out innovative and novel methods, creatively and rigorously analysing and interpreting what you have found and communicating the results to the world is the job – if you can do this and you love doing this then I believe a scientific career will happen for you.
Julia Jones – Choose your partner carefully! (cf. the consistently amazing stats about division of household jobs between the genders)
Nathalie Pettorelli – There is no advice that works for all: it all depends on what your situation is, what your worries are. My advice: drop me an email if you think I can help you!
Verena Trenkel – Know what you are good in and tell others about it. Don’t wait to be discovered – make sure you are! Playing (sometimes) your own trumpet is simply part of the job and not a sign of overselling yourself. Build up a professional network. Be a team player but also a scientific leader in your area of excellence.
Yolanda Wiersma – In hindsight, I realize that part of the reason I feel a bit awkward about conversations about women and STEM is that I’ve been extremely fortunate to have supportive folks from my earliest days as a scientist. My kids are now a bit older; I’ve gotten tenure, and managed to renew my grants. I now find junior colleagues (both female and male) with young kids coming to me for advice on how to juggle it all. Based on my experiences, I think the key is to try to surround yourself with supportive people – supervisors, mentors, colleagues, friends, and partner/spouse. Happy International Women’s Day (and thank you) to all of them!