Tackling gender imbalance in academia

PHOTO: Suzanna Prosser

Event report by Suzanna Prosser, Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute, Canada

Gender imbalance is a longstanding issue in academia, with men still more likely to progress to the highest levels. Institutional and individual biases, attitudes, and self-limiting beliefs are only some of the factors that allow this situation to persist. The Gender Roles and their Impact in Academia virtual conference served as a timely reminder of these issues, whilst also highlighting current thinking, research and practices surrounding gender, diversity, equality and academia. It was only fitting that the conference commenced on the second Tuesday of October, which is designated as Ada Lovelace Day, an annual celebration to raise the profile of women in STEM.

The opening lecture was delivered by Melvin Konner (Emory University) whose 2015 book ‘Sex, Evolution and the End of Male Supremacy’, upset a lot of people if the vitriolic reviews and commentaries it received are anything to go by. The premise Melvin presents in his book is a very simple one: “women are not equal to men; they are superior in many ways, and in most ways that will count in the future”. He explained that the similarities between men’s and women’s brains are far greater than the differences, but historically women have been believed not to have the capacity to lead. The consequence of this is that their voices have been excluded from the places where they would be most beneficial. We are now, however, living in a time where women are managing to trickle up to prominent leadership roles throughout the world, although sadly the tides of change continue to move slowly.

The notion that men are superior to women has perpetuated in part due to biological evidence perceived in such a way so as to support this thinking. Against this, Gemma Puixeu (IST Austria) very eloquently argued that while biology can justify the differences between the sexes, it cannot justify gender binarism nor gender inequality. Acknowledging that there are many other players aside from chromosomal sex defining systemic sex, allows us to appreciate that gender expression is multifactorial, leading to a continuum that is influenced by non-biological factors. Indeed, gender binarism can only be explained by cultural enforcement. For gender inequality, traditional evidence states that sexual selection is stronger in males, as male traits are superior and that evolution is male-driven. On the other hand, alternative evidence says that there is no power inequality between the sexes, and questions what are male and female traits, and why we value them differently. Furthermore, one sex does not evolve in spite or at the expense of the other. So, if male supremacy is not explained by biology, why has science failed us? First, it is subjective – if performed by men, it is for men and suffers from unconscious bias. Second, arguing women are subordinate by nature justifies socio-politico-economic interests.

Talks by Cordelia Fine (University of Melbourne), Ijeoma Uchegbu (University College London) and Stephen Curry (Imperial College) covered why gender diversity matters in the work place, strategies to approach equity and diversity in academia, and how to ensure science is built by men and women. Evidence provides overwhelming support for diversity on teams and panels leading to better decision-making processes, outcomes and productivity. Indeed, diverse teams make superior decisions as they focus more on facts and process them more carefully. Depending on field, over 50% of graduate students are female, however often less than 10% of professors are women. Reasons why women fall out of the academic pipeline are varied but, as Heather Metcalf (Association for Women in Science) explained, intersectionality is a crucial dimension, with reasons being very different for women of different backgrounds.

Women are frequently encouraged to adopt more male-associated traits, such as confidence. However, Suzanne Doyle-Morris (InclusIQ) informed us that women that display overt confidence tend to be penalized with negative labels such as bossy, difficult, and strident. And the inherent confidence women possess to occupy space in fields dominated by men often goes unacknowledged. Furthermore, over-valuing confidence disadvantages people from groups, genders and cultures in which self-promotion is criticised, and risks hiring and promoting the wrong people. Instead, panels need rigorous training in preparation for conducting evaluations so as to see through confidence to get to competence. It is important to value competence over confidence, as competence as a trait works for a wider range of people when looking for leaders in academia. In addition to hiring committees, this is particularly important in research funding decisions, as obtaining funding serves as an indicator and requirement for career success. However, systemic inequality also exists in grant allocation, to the detriment of women. Claartje Vinkenburg (CJ Vinkenburg Advies) described how panel members believe in their own ability to objective evaluate proposals based on merit, but that panel members’ implicit associations and explicit expectations around the ‘ideal scientist’ and ‘ideal career’ affect how they evaluate and discuss applications. In addition, the requirement to ‘sell science’ (high risk, high reward) creates an additional layer of gendered complexity to the decision process.

In the final keynote lecture of the conference, Jo Handelsman (Wisconsin Institute for Discovery) discussed gender bias in academic science. Unconscious bias describes the underlying attitudes and stereotypes that people unconsciously attribute to others that affect how they understand and engage with them. Unfortunately, many scientists believe they don’t display unconscious bias as they are trained to be objective, however study after study proves this to be untrue. In one such study, participants were more likely to hire whichever application had a man’s name on it, then provided post-choice justifications, like citing whichever strength was present, for their biased behavior. Worryingly, those who believe they aren’t biased are those that apply biases the most. Fortunately, there are tangible steps that can be taken to overcome unconscious bias, including: promotion of self-awareness of biases, understanding the nature of bias, providing opportunities to discuss bias to create accountability, and the provision of training sessions to promote bias literacy. Indeed, earlier in the meeting, Ansgar Büschges had described the use of unconscious bias training as a prerequisite for participation in faculty search committees at the University of Cologne for the active recruitment of women. In addition, the identification of hiring criteria before the evaluation of candidates can abolish bias in selection participants. Jo also advised female scientists to give their referees as much information as possible about themselves (accomplishments, career goals etc.), as the less information people have available the more likely they are to fall back on biases.

Gender imbalance in science hasn’t occurred due to not having suitably qualified women, but rather the structures that are in place which prevent them from taking their rightful place in the higher echelons. Instead of helping women do better, we need to eradicate the barriers that prevent them from succeeding and provide them with the same level of support and mentorship that men receive. We need affirmative action, targets and quotas to reach gender equality, alongside a rethinking of criteria and assessment. While the problem is a chronic under-representation of women in research, men need to be part of the conversation. Indeed, the drive for gender equality is not an attack on men to prevent them from succeeding, but the provision of space to allow women to succeed as they deserve.

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