Reaching gender equality in science

The Athena SWAN award is a UK scheme set up to recognise commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in academia. The scheme has been running for several years with Universities and their departments applying for recognition at bronze, silver or gold level. In 2012 a pilot scheme was set up to investigate the inclusion of research institutes into the Athena SWAN scheme. The John Innes Centre was one of these pilot institutes, and we are proud to say that this year we have been awarded an Athena SWAN silver award.

We celebrated the award this month and as part these celebrations we had a panel debate. The debate discussed  a recent report on Women in Science written by the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee,  and the commitment of both the John Innes Centre and the University of East Anglia (UEA) to ensuring gender equality within their academic communities. This event was run by ResNet, a UEA network set up to promote gender equality. The panel at this event consisted of David Richardson (UEA deputy Vice-Chancellor and member of the BBSRC council), Tracy Chapman (co-lead of the UEA School of Biological Sciences Athena SWAN team), Carole Thomas (chair of the JIC Athena SWAN Committee) and Dale Sanders (director of JIC who also sits on the JIC Athena SWAN committee).

The Science and Technology Committee report on Women in Scientific Careers highlighted many issues facing women in STEM careers. One of the key issues highlighted in this was the ‘leaky pipeline’. The leaky pipeline is a phrase used to discuss the drop-out rates of women in STEM subjects as they ascend the career ladder. In life sciences, for example, undergraduates tend to be around 50/50 male to female. However, when you then look at the senior scientist level, this ratio clearly drops, with only 20.5% of STEM professors in the UK being female . Many reasons have been put forward for this leaky pipeline, ranging from a lack of female role-models for aspiring female scientists, to the lack of stability in early-career research jobs. However there are certainly  multiple reasons to explain the lack of gender diversity.

A clearly identified reason in the report was unconscious bias. Unconscious bias is the hidden personal bias that we all have, rooted by the stereotypes that we are brought up around and our own personal preferences towards people, for example that are similar to us. Unconscious bias is currently thought to play a large role in the lack of women in senior roles, both in sciences and in other fields such as business. If you ask someone to think of a manager, for example, the majority of people will picture a man. Many traits considered useful for leadership are thought of as male traits, whilst more caring traits are considered female. Now that unconscious bias has been recognised, many institutions and businesses are actively running training to help eliminate these biases – including UEA and on the Norwich Research Park. These bias issues may not be exclusive to recruitment either. It was highlighted that only 7 out of 75 major life sciences awards given out last year were given to women, and it is generally agreed that it is often less common for panels to recommend  women  for the awards. The same applies with guest speakers, although this highlighted an additional issue. Although women may be as likely to be invited to speak, they tend to be more likely to turn down the opportunity. This year will be the first time ever that a woman will give the plenary talk at the John Innes Centre ASM.

Another barrier identified in the gender equality issue is that early-career academic jobs are characterised by short-term contracts. Post-doctoral jobs are not permanent, and often at the end of these short (one to five years) contracts the academic will be faced with uprooting their life and moving to a new town, country or even continent to continue their career. This early-career stage coincides with an age when many people are considering building a family. Women tend to be the primary carers, and often end their academic career at this point – although it is not an issue that exclusively affects women, as some men also chose to be  a primary carer for a family. Academia is all about your research portfolio, and if you have a two-year gap in your CV due to building a family it may have serious repercussions for job applications. There are schemes in place now to try and help this issue, and the Government has called on the higher education sector to review career structure and increase the number of longer-term positions for post-docs. However, we need to be careful – a post-doc job is a training job – and if you are stuck in the same position for 5-years you will get a very different type of training to someone who has completed two or three post-docs in this time. Other schemes for this include fellowships from the Daphne Jackson Trust – a fellowship scheme that JIC now sponsors. These fellowships were designed to help people return to STEM careers after a break of two or more years, which can make a big difference for people hoping to return to their field.

Reaction to this report seemed to have a similar theme from the panel at the event – disappointment. Although our panel all agree with issues brought up during the discussion, and feel positive that the key issues were recognised, they recall that this is not the first time that these issues have been brought up. Many of the issues were brought up a decade ago, and the lack of progress is rather disheartening. Agreement was clear that there are still changes to be made, and also clear that incentives such as Athena SWAN have been great for forcing these changes to be made. At our local institutes, the Athena SWAN application process forced the committees to look closely at their workforce, gather data and scrutinise current practices. Since beginning our application several great changes have been brought into effect. For example we have set up  a family support fund to financially support researchers with caring responsibilities when they need to travel as part of their work. The award has also raised awareness about the issue nationally, helping people to realise that the biases are there and that changes need to be made. It has also raised the awareness that many issues attributed towards women may also be issues for men – such as caring responsibilities, especially with rising costs of childcare. It was agreed that the report did help to break down the challenges facing the scientific community into different sectors.

When asked to name a single development that they would like to see taken up to promote gender equality our panel generally were in agreement on a single topic;  the lack of financial structure available to support childcare for academics in caring responsibilities, as well as career breaks and transition to part time work. Removing unconscious bias from the system was the other issue highlighted, and this included the fact that financial worries over childcare are not a solely female issue.

From reading the committee report and sitting on the Athena SWAN committee (although I am new to the committee, and missed much of the hard work put in towards the award), I would personally agree that there is no single issue blocking gender equality, and no single solution to remove it. However, there is now real drive to change things for the better and try to eliminate the inequality facing us today. Rather than seeing positive discrimination towards women I would like to see equal opportunities for all, and see people gaining recognition on their merits alone, not the presence/absence of a Y chromosome. I would like to wholeheartedly congratulate both UEA and JIC on their achievements in the Athena SWAN team, especially JIC on their recent Silver Award. I also think that Carole Thomas deserves some special recognition for the sheer amount of work and dedication she put into Athena SWAN. Hopefully, JIC will be able to continue their efforts in improving equality across site, and maybe we will even be able to aim for a Gold Award in the future. I also hope that in 10 years’ time we won’t be in the same situation as now, where many of the problems have been identified but not resolved.

To see my previous post on Women in Science, click here

By Izzy Webb, a 2nd year PhD student in the lab of Prof Phil Poole

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