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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14th EMBL Conference: Transcription and Chromatin

Event Report by Apoorva Baluapuri, University of Würzburg, Germany

As it happens frequently in life, there is always something good that comes out of a bad situation. The scientific world seems to be in the midst of such a situation, where all possibilities to share exciting discoveries and network among peers in person have disappeared, thanks to a 200 nm wide particle of protein. However, the good thing that has come out of it was the ability to virtually participate in conferences and talks at a reduced cost, and also without raking in carbon footprint.

The 14th Transcription and Chromatin conference at EMBL showed how such virtual hosting can be done in an excellent manner. While the new format took some getting used to, such a minor inconvenience was a small price to pay for making the new science accessible to researchers around the world – and many of them who would not have joined a conference in a different continent in person, tuned in from the comfort of their homes and offices.

A word cloud composed of the titles of the talks from Day 1 showcases the range of topics in focus.

In fact, thanks to the intuitive features of Zoom, many more questions were asked following the talks at the conference, with intense rigour and enthusiasm particularly from the younger participants. Due to the considerations of time-zone differences, the meeting was restricted from 14:00-22:00 CEST (approx.) and consisted of 15-20 minutes long talks, which turned out to be very fruitful in terms of keeping things concise while maintaining the interest.

The titular opening session was dedicated to mechanisms of transcription in eukaryotes. The range of speakers truly covered every end of the spectrum in all respects. While seasoned scientists like Patrick Cramer (Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Germany) showcased the lessons learnt in transcription initiation, promoter-proximal pausing and elongation from Pol II structural biology, young scientists like Kinga Kamieniarz-Gdula (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poland) also dazzled with new insights into transcription termination.

Similar trend was noted in the area of chromatin topology with Ana Pombo (Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, Germany) showcasing Genome Architecture Mapping which found variable 3D topology in brain cells at both short and long genomic distances, and integrated it with single-cell RNA-Seq data to get cell-type specific gene expression. Display of new technologies was relentless with Kyle Eagen (Northwestern University, USA) showing how BRD4-NUT (which recruits P300 histone acetylase) drives interactions to form a specific nuclear subcompartment, and how a PROTAC against it abolished the subcompartment interactions.

In times when scientists are mostly working from home, Steve Henikoff (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, USA) took the concept to a new level by showcasing a new protocol for CUT & RUN called CUT&Run @ Home, which can actually be performed in your own garage. This was truly inspirational!

However, regulation of X chromosome was not left behind, and Asifa Akhtar (Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics, Germany) H4K16ac and X chromosome regulation. It was shown in really exhaustive detail how histone acetylation is not just a way to open the chromatin structure, but it’s also a much more elaborate and elegant system controlling gene expression in both Drosophila and mouse.

As usual, what was very obvious was the affinity of the speakers towards incredible puns and double entendre! While Alistair Boettiger (Stanford University, USA) mentioned that he thinks of TADs as more like “dancers”, rather than architects of nucleus, Karolin Luger (University of Colorado Boulder, USA) showed cool structural data indicating how SPT16 CTD “hugs and protects” exposed DNA binding surfaces on nucleosomes.

When it comes to transcription in the 2020s, the phenomenon of phase separation cannot be ignored. Thanks to Bob Kingston (Harvard Medical School, USA), who showed the functional role for phase separation in a system, where PRC1 subunit CBX2 CaPS domain drives phase separation in cells; and David Gilmour (The Pennsylvania State University, USA)  who explained the consequences of too short and too long consensus Pol II CTDs, it was clear that the phenomenon has clear and present relevance in transcription.

However, the core mechanistic session related to Pol II was not neglected either: Steve Buratowski (Harvard Medical School, USA), showed that Pol II CTD phosphorylation cycle is all about time and not distance on genes. Using single molecule imaging system, he showed two modes of Pol II association on promoters: short duration via Mediator in contrast to long duration via PIC. Amazingly, he found time to talk about Elongation Factor dynamics as well.  It turns out that elongation exchange can happen on moving Pol II as well, and was shown for SPT5 that it actually disassociates while Pol II remains bound, with a new SPT5 binding event being recorded later.

That being said, this conference was not just about basic science and mechanisms – but included lessons learnt from applying the mechanistic understanding into the translational aspects of science. For example, Ali Shilatifard (Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, USA) showed that inhibiting Super Elongation Complex (SEC) by small molecule inhibitors reduces Pol II speed (in terms of kb/min by FP-4sU-Seq, and not pSer2 Pol II ChIP-Seq – no sloppy work shown at this conference !!) and helps in recovery of MYC driven tumours in mice.

Towards the last session of the conference, there was a nice mix of talks covering transcription elongation and termination, with Hanneke Vlamming (Harvard Medical School, USA) (one of the few post-doctoral researchers who delivered the talks!!) showing that for Pol II, the elongation potential is encoded in DNA sequence. She also indicated that mRNA sequences are not only easier to transcribe for Pol II, but also for maintaining steady state RNA and protein levels. At the same time, Torben Heick Jensen (Aarhus University, Denmark) showed the effects of depleting Integrator, indicating that Integrator depletion causes decrease OR increase of transcriptional read-through, depending on the genes if they are multi or mono-exonic. What seemed really striking was also the report that heat shock triggers increased elongation rates of Pol II while inducing premature termination – as shown by Jesper Svejstrup (now at University of Copenhagen).

Finally, the conference wrapped up with Shelley Berger summarizing the new findings from her lab changes in foraging behaviour of ants based on epigenetics, with the cool finding that HDAC inhibitors induce changes in “caste” of ants.

In many ways, this conference was a first for a lot of people. The ease with which young scientists could ask questions in Zoom and interact with the speakers on Slack was definitely the highlight – but left some scope for improvement in terms of how poster presenters interacted with the audience. In the words of a few presenters, it seemed extra work to upload the data in parts when some of the other conferences allowed them to upload just the PDFs of their posters. Nevertheless, the Zoom sessions were still adequate for the individual poster sessions.

What was truly enjoyable and an upgrade from in person socialising at conferences was the Social Mixer Event! It was an amazing experience to meet so many new people (and say hello to a few old acquaintances) during the speed networking. Hope this is a recurring theme in the years to come.

This bring us to introspect the utility of virtual conferences when the emphasis to reduce the carbon footprint has been on the rise. Maybe alternating between virtual and in-person conference, or a hybrid model with virtual and in-person talks in the future would be that way to go.

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