Modern science needs everyone on board

To invoke real changes in gender balance in science, we need a radical approach.

There’s no doubt that despite our achievements in society, we suffer from many inequalities. It’s difficult to “rank” them, but gender is one of the most profound and harmful and by scale, touches 50% of the population. In science and academia, we are only harming ourselves by not drawing fully from the huge potential in ideas and innovation of half of the population.

You don’t need a Nobel Prize to be a science role model

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, there has been much chatter on twitter showcasing the heroic women of science. While they were undoubtedly some of the biggest contributors to science, they constantly struggled for recognition, equality and decent treatment. These women were extraordinary; this leads us to think that for a woman to be successful in science, she has to be a superhero, who has overcome great obstacles to achieve her goals.

This isn’t true; we are now increasing the number of scientists, which is in line with a strong shift towards R&D, and widespread scientific research. While the number of scientists increase, we need to be diversifying, as this is the only way to ensure a sufficient influx of new creative ideas. There is not only space but a need for all sexes to be equally involved and given even opportunities.

We need more good scientists and cannot limit ourselves to the notion of a male-dominated, elitist club which science largely represented historically, because we are now facing ever-growing challenges in which we need ideas and perspectives which can only come from diverse community.

While it seems that male scientists are starting to recognise this as an issue, we are still dragging our feet; there is an expectation that for women to be recognised, they need to be another Marie Sklowdowska Curie or Rosalind Franklin. We expect young female scientists to achieve way more than men to recieve the same recognition. Let’s begin by normalising female scientists, projecting images of both genders in white coats and encouraging young students to look up to both male & female scientists which are next to to them, and not only the scientific “stars”.

How can we invoke change?

There are actions on many levels that can be taken to work towards gender equality in science. While working in Australia, I’ve seen the conversation of gender equality coming steadily into the mainstream of scientific discussion. There is official emphasis on policy changes and actions at the level of early and mid-career researchers (EMCRs). Even hiring policies of many universities imply we need a certain quota of all job candidates to be of opposite sex.

We can learn from the research funding process as the landscape of research & innovation changes. For example, how we fund grants for established/tenured professors with track records vs. young investigators. Young investigators have had less opportunities to show their potential, just as women have due to institutionalised and social gender inequalities. If we don’t risk money on women, like for young investigators, we risk losing out on their potential innovation and ideas down the road. At the beginning, it may feel artificial, and a “quota”-based mechanism will feel uncomfortable, but we urgently need to catalyse an equilibration. The aim is to eventually reach a point where opportunities and expectations of both genders are equalised, and such quotas are no longer needed.

Make some noise

Men apply for jobs if they tick 50% of the boxes — when women read the same criteria, internalised bias convinces many of them they are not qualified to apply because they only tick 50% of boxes. While the number of female students in STEM exceeds male, we still need to be encouraging more women to apply for leading scientific roles at later stages of their career. Increasing the number of female candidates will significantly impact the recruitment landscape.

We often see established male academics presenting keynotes at conferences. We should be giving chances, as we give to young scientists who are newcomers to the field, to women in the field who have valid expertise and qualifications, but haven’t had the opportunity to show their work. When choosing keynotes, we should not be focussing only on statistics.

On the larger forum, let’s keep the dialogue going and make a big noise whenever gender equality is being compromised. On the individual scale, however, let’s start making small but intentional changes within our own groups, communities and institutions, but try and avoid underlining gender as the driving force for decisions to prevent stigmatising women in the workplace.

Science is not what it was 60 years ago; it is a huge industry which needs the diversity of the world to generate enough ideas and creativity to tackle global problems.

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