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An international day to encourage more women and girls in science

Plenty more needs doing to help plug the gender gap in science. Shutterstock/kurhan

An international day to encourage more women and girls in science

Plenty more needs doing to help plug the gender gap in science. Shutterstock/kurhan

The first United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science is being celebrated today, with a number of articles profiling women scientists (including myself) for their achievements.

Which is fantastic, right? Well, a cursory peek at Google will tell you some people are less than impressed, particularly some blokes who are asking when is the international day of men and boys in science?

The reaction from some men, and not an isolated case either. Facebook

Well, the fact is, fellas, it’s every day for you (as many were keen to point out in the Facebook comment, above)! And the statistics tell us this is the case. I work in biomedical science, where the gender balance – at least at entry level – is pretty equal. But once you start moving up the chain of seniority, it falls away drastically.

Research tells us that while women comprise more than half of science PhD graduates and early career researchers, just 17% of senior Australian academics within the sciences are women.

Scientists are all too familiar with the famous “scissor graph” (below), which elegantly depicts the stark reality of gender imbalance in senior roles in science. It’s not only disheartening, it’s also probably discouraging. And why would it not be?

The ‘scissor graph’ show it’s not good news for women in science. Higher Education Research Data Collection 2012, Department of Education; Office of the Chief Scientist, Australia.

So the issue is not so much to encourage more women into science, but to keep them there.

Improving the gender balance

There has been much talk and, I’m pleased to say, action recently regarding improving the gender imbalance, particularly when it comes to competitive funding.

Some of these initiatives include the National Health and Medical Research Council (which funds the majority of Australian biomedical research) recently instigating a program to directly link funding to gender equity programs. This includes institutions being required to implement mentoring and skills training strategies that promote and seek to increase women’s participation.

A quick note on the important differences between equality and equity; equality is giving everyone access to the same things, but equity is giving people access to the same opportunities.

But I think we need to look earlier than when grants get awarded. We need to look at inequity at the level of students and early career researchers.

Universities and medical research institutes need to step up to the plate in this regard. Which is why the The Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) trial currently happening at 32 institutions is so important and encouraging!

This initiative aims to address the loss of so many women scientists, which The Australian Academy of Science describes as a significant waste of expertise, talent and investment, directly impacting our nation’s scientific performance and productivity.

No lip service

But, importantly, there needs to be better mentoring of junior scientists and senior staff need to be accountable for it, instead of it being a lip service process often fulfilled by an online module.

The recent stories of sexual harassment coming out of the astronomy community are shocking, but even worse are suggestions that universities protected harassers and did not provide suitable means to make complaints.

One thing that is particularly frustrating are reports of women being perceived as overly sensitive or difficult if they make complaints. Even worse is the perception that you will “ruin someone’s career” if you report them for harassment.

Everyday sexism in science is endemic and pernicious, and needs to be addressed at the very earliest opportunity. Not to mention patronising and condescending advertising campaigns which thankfully, in the age of Twitter, get deservedly and hilariously ridiculed.

Crucially, we need women in science to be seen, and to be accessible, so they can serve as role models and mentors for future researchers. And we need support from our male colleagues, whom I’m pleased to say are stepping up to the plate.

If you are considering a career in science, get in touch with a scientist whose work interests you or who you’ve seen in the media, and as ask them for advice. You will find many of us on Twitter and we love to talk about our work, usually without much encouragement.