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Babies versus science

To all the women in science … please stand up!

Opportunities not taken are opportunities missed.

As a woman interested in improving outcomes for women I feel like I am about to betray “the cause” by suggestion that any – even the smallest degree – of responsibility for the under-representation of women in science should be taken by the women wanting to be in science.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to all the women and men that have identified the difficulties and systemic biases women must overcome to compete in academic careers. There are clearly a lot of factors “to blame” and many fingers have already been pointed.

But it was a recent New York Times article “Why are there still so few women in science?” that really got me thinking.

The story of wasted talent and unfulfilled aspirations is undoubtedly very sad. But as is often the case, this article focused on fields such as physics, chemistry and mathematics where the numbers are often against girls from the earliest levels. Accordingly, much of the article focuses on the impact of women being a minority within these disciplines.

So what about scientific careers in fields dominated by women? My two most recent positions have been in psychology departments: previously at Harvard University and now at the University of Melbourne.

These are both large departments in active research-focused universities, with women everywhere you look. Yet there still seems to be a steady reduction in the representation of women in the field at each stage of career progression. This reduction becomes even more obvious when I look around the annual neuroscience or psychology-focused conferences where there are always high numbers of female graduate students, yet you struggle to spot the female professors among their many male counterparts.

After reading the New York Times article I was saddened about the current state of things, but as a woman I was also left with an uneasy feeling that we are overlooking any role that women might play in this cycle of discrimination. I know I will receive negative commentary for voicing this opinion, but I honestly think that as women we can do more to act as our own advocates.

The reality is successful careers normally result from a combination of ability, some luck and a bit of help along the way. It is this final part that I think may be overlooked in current discussions.

In the recent New York Times article the author repeatedly mentioned the need for greater encouragement of women to pursue research careers. Importantly, she makes the point that one of the main reasons she chose not to pursue a career in physics was because nobody ever specifically told her that she should - despite being one of the first two females at Yale to ever receive an undergraduate degree in this field.

Active discouragement is unforgivable, but an absence of encouragement is a very different thing.

Of course, silence can be deafening and implicit biases can be catastrophic to a career. However, if we are trying to apportion “responsibility”, is it reasonable to attribute none to the individual and everything to “society”?

In this particular example she never applied to graduate school, nor did she ask any of her professors if she should (in the article the clear indication is that if she had asked they probably would have told her that she was indeed bright enough). It is this part of the tale that I find most upsetting. The ramifications were clear – it was the death of a career. For the next generation, I hope history does not continue to repeat itself.

The impact of silence

If I reflect on the past decade or so as a student and early career researcher, the top handful that struck me as “most likely to succeed” have generally been men. If I think about it, this is not because I believed those individuals were necessarily the most talented, but they stood out as people that “wanted” it the most. In the case of the small number of women I viewed as similarly very likely to succeed, I think the single intangible quality that gave me confidence in their capacity to “make it” was their obvious desire to do so.

When I speak to female graduate students I am often left with the impression that they don’t really know what they want to do in the future. In the past I interpreted this uncertainty as reflecting a genuine indecision between a career in research versus one outside of science, or even a life focused primarily around raising a family.

It is only now that I am starting to wonder if the bigger issue is that females are less likely to be open about their goals and desires, particularly if the aspirations are set high. I am not sure if this is due to less confidence in a capacity to achieve their goals, or women have a greater concern about being perceived “too arrogant or assertive” if they vocalise their goals.

Regardless, the one big problem with women preferring to keep their goals and desires hidden is this invisibility can be crippling in a competitive environment where you need everything going your way.

General thoughts about potential differences between the willingness of men and women to put themselves in a public/ peer spotlight have been mulling around in my head for some time. My concerns crystallised when I sent an email to all of the graduate students and research fellows within the school asking for volunteers to report some of their recent findings.

I organise the department’s seminar series and with one final open slot available I thought it would be nice to showcase some of the students’ research. Currently we have more than 100 female PhD students (with less than half that number of men). Five people responded to my email offering to talk and four of them were male. The one female who did volunteer initially suggested presenting a general review of findings in the field rather than focus on her own research.

In the end the five talks were all outstanding and I am grateful to all that participated, but I can’t help consider the impact that events like this have on other students and staff in the audience. How can you walk away with anything other than a biased perspective, reducing the perceived level of female accomplishments? For the students themselves, this was a valuable opportunity to practice public speaking that more than 99% of our female students chose to pass up.

I don’t know why the other women did not volunteer to present, but my suspicion is that the problem was the “voluntary” nature of the exercise. I am quite sure if I had randomly approached female students within the department and directly asked them to present their research, then most of them would have happily agreed.

I struggle to see how real progress is going to be made if women can’t be convinced that they can, and should, put themselves forward in situations like this. Women need to put their hand up and declare their willingness to be involved in science. Otherwise people might misinterpret their inability to come forward as an indication that they would prefer to move away.

Compounding the problem with babies

When you add babies into the mix, there are again undoubtedly many real obstacles that women face (many that I have written about previously). However, I can’t help wonder if women are being further disadvantaged within this particular context of hidden goals.

Employers and supervisors are increasingly expected to be sensitive to the changing circumstances of new parents - and ensure they do not demand that all parents will want or be able to achieve at the same level they did pre-kids.

So where does this leave young women at the earliest stages of a scientific career? I fear that in the eyes (and unconscious biases) of others, it leaves them vulnerable to the perception they’re less likely to want to compete for a research career.

So if I could give young females (and males) advice, it would be that if you have aspirations, then voice them!

If you have concerns about our ability to achieve these aspirations for X or Y reason, voice those concerns too.

If you feel like you need more encouragement, you may have to ask for it.

The only way that those around you can help you get what you want, is if they know what you want.

Don’t wait to be asked … if there is an opportunity to stand up and be counted, then please take that opportunity!

Importantly, don’t just do it for yourself … do it for those coming behind you! The only way to correct unconscious biases against women is to increase the number and visibility of examples contrasting the stereotypes.

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