Action speaks louder than words

Women’s Networking Lunch Event on the DESY campus. Photo Credit: EMBL / Rosemary Wilson

I really enjoyed seeing the photos posted by female scientists at work on social media under the recent hashtags #girlswithtoys and #distractinglysexy. It was great to see so much pride, enthusiasm and humour and it is great that the debate about sexism in science has spilled out of academic circles and into all possible channels from the daily newspapers, radio programs and even Elle magazine. Now is then the time to channel that energy and awareness into action. But just what exactly is the problem and what can we do to change it?

This article from Nature illustrates what exactly the problem is: although women make up about 20 – 60% of doctoral recipients, these numbers drop off quickly until there is hardly any a single women at senior levels. The reasons are not clear cut, but evidence shows women get less funding, get promoted less, get invited to interviews less and paid less than their male counterparts. What can we do to overcome these challenges and boundaries? Many institutes, universities and funding agencies are already rising to the challenge by providing funding for fellowships and mentoring schemes but what else can we all do? Athene Donald’s recent blog post, this Nature article, and this from the Times Higher Education list a number of things everyone can do to promote the cause of women in science. Well worth a read and taking to heart.

Several of these points also came up in a Women in Science Lunch hosted on the DESY campus I attended last week. The three female scientists on the panel gave their views on the question why they thought there were so few females at senior levels in science. One theme that reoccurred was that of unconscious bias. As one of the speakers explained, when on an interview panel, for example, it is easier to feel more comfortable with what we already know – if all we know are white male scientists, we may (even as women) feel inclined to choose the same model again. It was interesting to also hear that one of the institutions represented by one of the panel members sends all group leaders on unconscious bias training courses. We are all biased – we associate feelings and personality traits unconsciously with gender, race, names and even hair colour. We can’t (or at least shouldn’t) ignore this, and if we appreciate and understand our biases and prejudices, we can attempt to address them.

Another discussion point was the importance of having a mentor. Having a mentor (male or female) who opens doors of opportunities for you, introduces you to important collaborators, encourages and supports you, can be important for any career, and can be especially helpful for women in science who experience more barriers than men. This article from the New York Times also talks more about the importance of having a good mentor.

I admit I had my reservations about the networking event (a room full of women talking about women’s issues – the horror!), but there was a friendly buzz of conversation in the room and the three female scientists sitting on the panel were inspiring with some useful insights from their own careers. In the one and half hours we sat together it seemed we only managed to ask the panel members a few questions and I would have loved to have heard more from them. It was great to meet colleagues and scientists from across the DESY campus and hear what other institutes and groups are already doing to support women in science. If nothing else finding each other and hearing what else is being done on the campus has been valuable. I hope we can keep onto this collective energy and build on these networks to do our bit for women in science here in Hamburg.


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