Continuing our series of blog posts for International Women’s Day, our Associate Editors discuss barriers to women entering STEM fields and what we need to do to improve gender equality.

nathalie-buttNathalie Butt – In terms of barriers to women, there are some fairly subtle ones, such as the general feeling that it is better to travel widely (e.g. degree in one place, PhD in another, first postdoc elsewhere, second postdoc somewhere else again, etc.), which definitely penalises those who can’t move easily due to family care responsibilities (yes, this can affect men too, but it is still largely women who make the sacrifice).

The lack of job security is also more difficult to manage for those with dependants – the eternal cycle of short-term contracts again favours those more able to move.

Requiring equal numbers of women and men postdocs or students in a lab should be fairly easy to implement (and it is the rule in many places), but this should also follow through to more senior positions where there is the biggest drop off in numbers of women.

cate-macinnis-ngCate Macinnis-Ng – I spent 13 years on fixed-term contracts and have only recently been appointed to an ongoing position. It’s been life-changing to not have to worry about the next packet of money. The two-body problem, managing parental responsibilities and dealing with bias (both conscious and unconscious) have been the major barriers for me. However, the thing that surprises me the most is the pervasive belief that the merit system is equitable. 90% of fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand are male yet there seems to be an idea that this is fair because it is based on merit. Obviously the merit system favours men over women because the alternative is that women are less deserving than men and there is no evidence for that. We need to acknowledge that the 1950s model of a white male academic with a wife and children at home is no longer relevant.

We need to value alternative pathways because this benefits everybody, including other minority groups.

It’s high time for a merit system that values a wider range of contributions and more fairly accounts for different approaches and barriers for minority groups. It’s a grand goal but we won’t truly see change until this is properly addressed.

ainhoa-magrachAinhoa Magrach – I did not feel the difference between men and women in scientific careers until I got to the postdoctoral level. Up to then I was surrounded by many other women doing their undergraduate or PhD studies. But then as a postdoc I started seeing I was the only woman in that role in many of the groups I worked in. I therefore believe that programs that encourage or give some kind of advantage to women in science are still necessary, unfortunately. However, these kind of programs also have problems as many women can be thought to have achieved their positions just for being women when they might not deserve them, and having to constantly justify your work in front of others is tiring.

I also believe we women tend to underestimate ourselves while the opposite is true for many men, whose confidence has been encouraged since childhood. I think this has an influence in our willingness to apply to tenured jobs for example as I believe it is more common for women to think they are not suited for the job.

I guess balancing family and work is also a huge reason why many women quit science and therefore measures to help in this matter should be taken by institutions (e.g. child care).

Some studies also suggest that journal reviewers tend to be harder with female first authors and this could be partially solved if all reviews were double-blinded.

elizabeth-nicholsElizabeth Nichols – I think one barrier is quality mentorship. By this, I mean people who are willing to dedicate their most precious resource – time – to actual conversations about ideas, skills and processes. Young women continue to express higher measures of self-doubt than young men, even when their skill sets are more strongly developed. When they occur, overcoming those confidence gaps requires work by both students and their mentors. And that sometimes requires time. In an academic context where publication rates may be privileged over teaching or mentorship, I fear that some interactions that would foster increased female participation in STEM may not occur.

romina-raderRomina Rader – I think more can be done in terms of female representation on panels, boards, steering committees etc. Especially in terms of accounting for career interruptions for those women with children.

meredith-root-bernsteinMeredith Root-Bernstein – I think that female attrition and gender inequality in STEM fields is largely a reflection of gender roles and stereotypes in the wider societies in which science operates. Assumptions about gender and competency are also inherent to particular fields, as was demonstrated in a very nice paper in Science last year. My impression is that the guys of my generation are infinitely more comfortable with a variety of ways of enacting being a woman and a scientist, than are older generations. For example, I really enjoyed the recent Ghostbusters movie because of the variety of personalities of the three female scientist characters. Maybe it suggests that society can gradually move towards less stereotyped ways of thinking about women, scientists, and women scientists. Although the global socio-political situation makes me fear we are all going to have to start behaving in more normative and stereotyped roles again.

More specifically, I think that the way talent is acknowledged and rewarded in academia can be problematic for women. There are many studies showing that women scientists on average receive weaker praise as well as being perceived as less competent, compared to men. Clearly this can lead to reduced opportunities. But I think there is another aspect of this problem that isn’t always considered. I think it is fair to say that scientists, along with all academics, are relatively underpaid. The “remainder” of the salary is paid in social regard and self-regard. Women receive less social regard than men for their work as scientists, and I think women are also socially conditioned to experience reduced self-regard for their work as scientists. If you think about it, the stereotype of the annoyingly egotistical or vainglorious scientist exists for men, but there is no such cultural stereotype for women, it’s not even seen as an option. Personally, when I achieve something I am proud of, I often feel that I either shouldn’t or can’t tell anyone about it, which somehow reduces my enjoyment of my achievement. If women enjoy less social regard and self-regard, then they feel the monetary underpayment more acutely than men. This would provide a rational reason to drop out of science careers in higher numbers. One solution would be to pay everyone more of their salary in money.

There are of course a number of structural barriers that may prevent women from wanting to continue in STEM careers that we all know about, related to the postdoc system and taking time off to have children and being able to form a coherent family unit.

The biggest thing that I think would help early career researchers in general, including women, would be more funding that goes to individuals, rather than to specific projects, and that is for a long period of time (at least 5 years) and can be taken anywhere you want.

We know that women come out of STEM education at the doctoral level with excellent research profiles, with the attrition occurring after this. An interesting paper in PNAS showed that series of short-term contracts (postdocs) in science produce “random negative production shocks” (unemployment) that lead to attrition independent of talent or persistence. Think about it: you’re talented, persistent, especially undercompensated, with limited “insider” benefits from the scientific community, and you are suddenly and randomly unable to find your next postdoc. When you are an international postdoc you are particularly vulnerable because you may not qualify for unemployment insurance and you may not be allowed to stay in the country where you are living without a work contract. The logical step is to look for a better job outside academia. This almost happened to me too, even though there is nothing I would rather do than be an academic scientist. Long, flexible grants would give women (and men) a chance to find a place where they work well with people, with some time to establish a research programme and a network and a personal life.

margaret-stanleyMargaret Stanley – No doubt this varies from country to country, but I think institutions and funders do not fully understand the full impact of maternity leave on women scientists, particularly early career researchers. While it’s obvious that research hours ‘stop’ when we take maternity leave, things also slow down before we leave (as we shed grad students) and take time to ramp back up again when we return from leave (attracting new grad students, funding, etc). With successive periods of maternity leave, research traction is hard to achieve, and this may impinge on some women’s decisions about family size. Certainly this was a consideration for me. While support within the home institution is required to get momentum going by providing targeted funding, metrics used for performance, promotion and by funders are very unforgiving on career gaps. Work-life balance also gets harder for primary caregivers and our kids miss out on time with parents due to evening functions and events (take note event organisers – lunchtime’s great for events!).

As women proceed through the ranks, the barriers hit harder. My observation is that women take on a lot of service and pastoral care roles and put a lot of effort into these roles.

Committees try to even up gender balance, the result being that service workloads can increase for a small number of senior women, often at the detriment to their research or work–life balance. I think institutions need to look carefully at service roles of staff.


Contributors to this post are:
Nathalie Butt, University of Queensland, Australia
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