International Women´s Day 2019

Mother and daughter in front of the sun. Joan Miró (1893-1983).

Mar 06, 2019
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UNDERREPRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN SCIENCE IS A THREAT TO THE PROGRESS OF KNOWLEDGE 

 Mar Sobral & Carola Gómez-Rodríguez

"Mother and daughter in front of the sun" reinterpreted by P.C. Sobral at age 3.

It doesn’t seem necessary to explain that creative discovery and productivity anywhere would be related to the workforce and the diversity of minds within it. Yet we may thoughtlessly take over a company and eliminate a third of employees, all of the same kind, with an aim to increase profit.  With this approach we reduce the number of workers, but we also reduce diversity of thought and function. Would we expect the company to be more productive and creative in the first or the second scenario? If the purpose of this company is to discover the rules that govern reality, and possibly to save the planet, how important would it be to get it right?

This is what happens with women in society, in all dimensions, also in Science. Why?

"Mother and daughter in front of the sun" Joan Miró.

WHAT ARE THE DATA?

Women are underrepresented in Academy, with some of the reasons being biases in recommendation and hiring, as well as in recognition and visibility between women and men in Science (see references within Grogan, 2019). Even worse, science lead by female scientists is systematically more rejected and less cited than work lead by male scientists (recent analyses of over 23,000 articles in six journals of ecology and evolution, Fox and Paine 2019).

Besides this scenario, there are other -even more clarifying- data:

Mothers of young children are 35 percent less likely to get a permanent position in Academia compared to male parents of young children, and 33 percent less likely than women without children. However, women without children have the same probability of getting an academic job as men without children (data from 10 years of research in U.S., Mason et al. 2013).

Almost half of women scientists quit academic careers after their first child -43 percent in the U.S. leave full-time science careers. Some fathers leave science too, 23 percent of fathers abandon science careers vs 16 percent of childless men. But this number is almost equal to the number of childless women, 24 percent, who abandon science careers (data from around 4,000 scientists surveyed during eight years in U.S., Cech and Blair-Loy 2019).

Altogether these data raise questions about: (i) sexism in Academia, (ii) a reproductive cost on academic careers, and more importantly (iii) a strong interaction between scientists’ gender and reproduction over their academic success.

In other words, the formation of the family may be the main factor that determines why women are systematically underrepresented  in Academia.

WHY DOES BEING A MOTHER PENALIZE ACADEMIC CAREERS?

-Self-exclusion During the doctorate, and before, women observe that science studies and the families do not seem compatible. To begin with, most of their supervisors, advisors, and bosses are men. At the same time, fewer than half of female professors have a partner and children. Consequently, young women pursuing academic careers have no role models to follow. Because of this and the internalized feeling that continuing in Science might imply giving up children, many young researchers leave the academic track.  

-Biological clock  Although academic women may delay as long as possible the moment of conceiving, the initial part of the scientific career is the hardest and most competitive and this stage coincides, biologically, with the care of young children. 

-Geographic mobility The academic profession typically requires geographic mobility, often among countries during the first few years, which is especially hard for academic women with children.

-Couple's activity Married scientific women are in relationships where partners almost always work, while only about half of male professors have partners who work full-time. Usually the arrival of children requires that one spouse prioritize family over career and that spouse is almost always the woman.

-Activism Members of underrepresented minorities must undertake an ethical obligation to fight injustice, for self-esteem, to improve the lot of the next generation, and even to earn the right to complain. But activism costs time, energy, and exposure not beneficial to oneself.

WHAT IS BEING DONE?

These issues have come to the attention of institutions around the world and measures have been introduced to prevent academic success from being incompatible with family, such as the increase of one year (or even 18 months) per child in the potential time to be able to apply for some government support in Europe. Although these interventions are important, they are not enough on their own and sometimes they are biased. These measures usually do not discriminate by the gender of the applicant, and although this might seem positive, the consequence is not. Motherhood cannot be compared to paternity from many points of view. The physical, mental and logistic costs of pregnancy, childbirth, puerperium and lactation (the World Health Organization recommends a minimum of two years of breastfeeding) cannot be compared to the wear caused by paternity. The added costs of parenthood for mothers may explain why data show that women's science careers are much more penalized by having children than are men’s careers (Mason et al. 2013; Cech and Blair-Loy 2019). 

How to improve?

It is necessary to implement additional corrective measures for this situation, but water cannot fix the pipeline (Grogan 2019). That is, minorities cannot do it alone. Male and female must work together to fix structural problems.  Obviously, a fair system would consider cases such as men who leave their careers to take care of the children temporarily, the case of homosexual couples with children, and the case of single-parent families led by either a scientist mother or father. Finally, it would be vitally important to protect and encourage scientists in their careers who face additional discrimination by gender-interacting factors, such as gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or culture. 


REFERENCES

Cech, E. A., & Blair-Loy, M. (2019). The changing career trajectories of new parents in STEM. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201810862.

Fox, C.W. & Paine, C.E.T. (2019). Gender differences in peer review outcomes and manuscript impact at six journals of ecology and evolution. Ecology and Evolution DOI: 10.1002/ece3.4993 

Grogan, K. E. (2019). How the entire scientific community can confront gender bias in the workplace. Nature ecology & evolution, 3(1), 3. 

Mason, M. A., Wolfinger, N. H., & Goulden, M. (2013). Do babies matter?: Gender and family in the ivory tower. Rutgers University Press.  


THANKS to Leslie Willoughby for collaboration and encouragement as well as to our recently created group of MUMS IN BIODIVERSITY for enriching discussion (@BdvMadres). 


Mar Sobral & Carola Gómez-Rodríguez are mothers and scientists and will keep going

Mar Sobral

Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Santiago de Compostela

I am a scientist @USC, Spain, previously trained in US (Stanford) and France (CNRS). The core of my professional activity is on the one hand the evolutionary ecology of plant-animal interactions and on the other, the research on the impact of global change on biodiversity, particularly regarding ecosystem functions and services such as carbon storage. I am also engaged in science outreach (enjoy https://vimeo.com/218616392) and on fighting gender discrimination in academy.

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