For International Women’s Day, we asked Kiran Dhanjal-Adams 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.

Kiran has also written about her recent paper ‘Optimizing disturbance management for wildlife protection: the enforcement allocation problem’ in Journal of Applied Ecology here: ‘Using maths to guide conservation law enforcement

What made you want to pursue a career in science?

Kiran Dhanjal Adams
Kiran Dhanjal Adams, Research Associate, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, UK @Kiran_DA

As a child, I loved nothing more than writing stories about my hamsters, looking for dinosaur bones in the garden, and pretending to do maths wrong so I could correct myself with a red pen. The only thing that has changed is that now I am writing papers about my masters, looking for prehistoric data in the archives, and re-writing maths problems with a red pen!

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

Dr. Ellie Sattler, the paleobotanist in Jurassic Park made quite the impression on 6-year-old little me.

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)?

The main barrier I have faced, and I imagine many other women in STEM face, is to do with attitudes. Instead of questions about my research, at conferences I’ve been asked whether I am a good cook, how old I am, if I still live with my parents. Male colleagues get asked questions such as ‘what do you think the main challenges facing conservation are today?’ – It’s infuriating!

It all comes down to unconscious bias. Women are not always taken as seriously as men, which means their papers and job applications are less likely to be accepted, which in turn means they become less competitive when applying for senior positions. It’s a never-ending vortex that we all try not to be sucked into.

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

I have recently gone through a series of interviews looking for postdocs, and was surprised and shocked to find that all the interview panels were composed of >80% men.  Realising how few women have pierced the glass ceiling has made me a little sad, but also motivated to change that.

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

I think everyone should test whether they have any unconscious biases. This can be done here under the Gender AIT test.

Unconscious biases happen. The important thing is acknowledge they exist and to make an effort to address them. It is critical to make sure there are as many women as men doing research. Women are half the population after all! That means that at interviews, if a man is chosen over a woman, to understand why: Is it because she really is worst, or is it because of an unconscious bias? Double blind peer review is also great, it removes any unconscious bias, not only towards women publishing in STEM, but also towards researchers from the developing world, who are greatly under-represented.

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?

Soapbox science, Queensland Women in STEM Research Prize and L’Oreal’s Women in Science fellowships have all impressed me. They are great, but the real thing that has made me realise that gender equality is possible and beneficial, has been working in a gender-equal environment. Seeing female colleagues in senior positions, doing high impact research and with lovely families has made me realise that we can, and should, have it all.

Is there anyone, or any institution, department etc., who you feel deserves specific praise in this area?

I have to acknowledge the Environmental Decisions Group at the University of Queensland, where I did my PhD, which has the highest concentration of smart women I’ve ever come across!

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

Go for it!

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