Women in Science

By Anne Van Loon – with special thanks to Massimilliano Zappa, Angela Thuer and all participants of the discussion sessions

Today Swiss women strike to demand equal pay. A good day to post a blog on gender (in)equality in science.

On 7 May 2019 I was invited at WSL (Switzerland) for a Distinguished Lecture. Massimilliano Zappa, who organised the event, asked me to also lead a discussion about Women in STEM for the organisation. I did quite a lot of preparation for the event, so I thought I should share all the useful information I found and my thoughts on the issue.

Please find the slides I prepared here: AnneVanLoon_WOMENINSTEM. They contain a lot of figures, quotes and graphs from various reports and publications. For example, the percentage of female professors in the EU is 23%, but this figure is lower in STEM fields (EU – SHE figures report). But also the interesting statistic that men are 15% more likely to share data when the request comes from another man. And did you know that the percentage of female award winners increased at EGU (2015: 17% women, 2017: 22%, 2019: 36%), but decreased at AGU (2015: 35% women, 2016: 30%, 2017: 21%, 2018: 15%).


So, what are the reasons? The research agrees that it is not about interest, it is not about ability!! It’s about all the things that add up… This is what the EU report says: “Institutional and field-related research cultures favour the advancement of men. Reasons for the lack of recruitment and promotion of women to high-level scientific and leadership positions include lower success rates in securing prestigious grants, the preponderance of part-time and short-term contract research positions, implicit gender bias in performance assessment, gender stereotypes, gendered perceptions of leadership and leadership styles, the ‘glass ceiling’, and the ‘gender pay gap’.”

Here I want to quote Michael Hendricks who wrote that:

  • “Most causes can’t be isolated. For example, women not choosing a specific discipline, or “choosing family over career,” cannot be separated from hostile environments or other factors. Encouragement and opportunities are important determinants for everyone”
  • “Advantages and disadvantages accumulate over time.”
  • “Having resources positions you to get more resources. Funding is a cause, not an effect, of ‘excellence’.”

Unconscious bias

We are drawn to details that confirm our own existing beliefs. And we favour options that appear simple or that have more complete information over more complex, ambiguous options. This leads to proven gender bias in student evaluations, reference letters, reviews & citations, grant applications, hiring & promotion, awards (which are all important criteria for evaluation and promotion). Interestingly, we all have unconscious bias (if you think you don’t, do the test: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/aboutus.html), but unfortunately all-male panels seems to have a bit more of it.

So, what do I do?

There is a personal aspect to all of this. I noticed that I have become much more aware and active in recent years. I have seen many amazing female scientists leave academia, not because they are not good enough or because they don’t want to do science, but because they feel they don’t belong and they don’t like the culture. I’m also experiencing first-hand what it feels like to be the only female academic staff member in a research theme and not having many female role models and mentors.

So, I decided to do what I can to change things. Firstly, of course playing an active role in discussions about diversity in science, both in my own department in Birmingham, in other places like at WSL, EGU, etc., and on Twitter. This sometimes means questioning decisions, doing the legwork of going through all applications for a post to make sure that shortlisting is unbiased, raising matters with our Equality & Diversity lead. Of course I would rather spend my time doing research, but I feel this is important.

Secondly, I calculate and share numbers on diversity in sessions I convene, working groups I lead, papers I write (see some examples below). I strongly belief that having the data and being open about them is a very important first step.




Thirdly, I’m consciously going against my (and other people’s) unconscious bias by championing female colleagues and ECRs. For example, I have a “Amazing female scientists” list that I consult if someone asks me for a suggestion for a seminar speaker, reviewer, etc. Also, I’m conscious about collaborating with women, having female co-authors, co-investigators, co-conveners, and suggest others also to consider women collaborators. One of the best things that I started to do recently when following new people on Twitter, is to consciously follow more female scientists. In that way I will read (slightly) more about the work of female scientists, which means that I might promote (retweet or cite) women’s work (slightly) more.

And finally, with a female postdoc and PhD student I have set up a “Women in (Physical) Geography” group at Birmingham meeting every month, and I’m part of a Signal chat group with a few other female Assistant & Associate Professors for moral support. I have become a big fan of women’s networks, both formal and informal, both live and virtual. If we cannot enter or break up the old-boys’ network, let’s create women’s networks for ourselves. Until our academic culture is inclusive and we have equal numbers of male and female professors, I’m afraid we need to have a safe space for discussing issues and possible solutions (some things like harassment might need to be shared ‘under the radar’), for creating this sense of belonging, for championing each other.

“Water can’t fix the leaks in the pipeline”

(Grogan, 2019, Nature)

At WSL we agreed that women don’t need fixing and that the onus should not be on women alone to make a culture change. The men who joined the discussion at WSL very nicely summarised what needs to be done: we need to ACT! Everyone should be involved and strong leadership is needed to make changes.

So, here are “Ten things you can do now to improve the climate for women in your department”

And a final note: I feel passionately about other aspects of diversity as well. I find it heart-breaking to hear about the issues that BAME and LGBTQ academics are facing. I’m hoping that by creating a more open and inclusive culture, we will also improve the situation for other minorities, but I do recognise that more targeted efforts might be needed.


Further reading & resources: