By Victoria Metcalf 14/02/2016 6


February 11th marked the first ever International Day of Women and Girls in Science, as declared by the UN. These are my reflections on women in science drafted the day after this inaugural event.

Yesterday

Yesterday I spent time in the morning reading about some of the latest sexual harassment cases for women in science. It’s disturbing just how prevalent sexual misconduct is in the sciences; in the field, in the hallowed halls of academia and within research institutions. Misconduct affects those in the earliest stages in their career through to very experienced researchers. Every day, it seems a case of “But wait, there’s more” in what is rapidly being unveiled as a long-standing, pervasive epidemic.

Yesterday I reflected on just how far we women in science still have to go to achieve equality, to receive the treatment and the career progression we deserve. We are so very far still from an even playing field and there are many obstacles, way beyond just the issues of sexual harassment. These are often insidious as well as covert.

Yesterday I thought about just how early discrimination starts for women in science, with the publication of a new study showing the social environment in the undergraduate classroom may contribute to the loss of women from science. The study, based on biology undergraduates, showed that:

males are more likely than females to be named by peers as being knowledgeable about the course content. This effect increases as the term progresses, and persists even after controlling for class performance and outspokenness.

The bias is specifically due to males over-nominating their male peers relative to their performance and in doing so underestimating the academic achievement of their female peers. Such favouring by peers, the authors suggest, could erode self-confidence in females.

Yesterday I read, without surprise, that research shows that companies and countries that invest more in creating equality with respect to family care, through investing in paternity care (the parameter they analysed in their study), result in greater proportions of women in positions of leadership.

“In countries that are more family-friendly and have greater support for child-bearing and rearing, women experience less disruptions in their careers and are more likely to make it to the top,” said Noland, who coauthored the report.

Yesterday I was reminded too that mixed gender science teams are more likely to perform better. This is also accurate with respect to mixed gender leadership teams. Get more women into top positions and we will all achieve greater things.

Yesterday I thought positively about the groundswell that has occurred in the last 18 months or so for women in science. We sit here today in the middle of a tangible, real and long imagined sea-change, fueled by the events and the momentum of the days and months before. Fueled often by social media bursts-  presenting a call of arms and an “Enough is enough” to the world of science. And to the world beyond an “Isn’t this crazy? Can you believe this? Will you help us change on the inside from the outside too?”

Yesterday I thought about how in acknowledging the multiple, complex and interconnected issues, we are making the first genuine strides towards change and this day is one important step. The United Nations declaration on International Day of Women and Girls in Science states:

Over the past 15 years, the global community has made a lot of effort in inspiring and engaging women and girls in science. Unfortunately, women and girls continued to be excluded from participating fully in science.

In order to achieve full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls, and further achieve gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution A/RES/70/212 (draft A/70/474/Add.2) declaring 11 February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Yesterday I watched this brilliant spoken word video by Ehmee:

We need more voices in science to stand up in defiance… it seems pretty obvious the words they think are innocuous are noxious, breeding doubts and insecurity….if you tell her that she’s pretty before you tell her that she’s smart, don’t be startled when she starts to parcel out and pull apart her individuality

Yesterday I read this piece by Rebecca Rogers Ackermann on her journey from harassee to guardian and how she hasn’t yet reported those who harassed her in her science career, whilst now steadfastly defending those under her care.

I have always been open with my students about what has happened to me, so that they might be more aware of these issues, and learn from them. Now I am ready to be open with everyone. So go ahead and ask me. Ask me who propositioned me, who grabbed my ass, who kissed me. Ask who grabbed my student’s breast or groped her thigh. Ask who slept with undergraduates, who accosted a colleague.   Who bullied me, degraded me, or put me down. I am done keeping this under wraps. Done.

It was only on stepping a little away from academia that I felt most ready to very publicly stand up, to speak out and be that advocate for change. Still, whilst I might mention in public talks some of the situations I have faced, I haven’t really felt ready to write about them explicitly – yet.

Yesterday I  was fortunate enough to finish the day in a very special way, by catching up with a dear friend just returning from remote fieldwork –  she’s an early career scientist, right at the beginning of her journey. She was with a male colleague and her supervisor, a later career scientist.

Yesterday evening over red wine we mulled over many things, not specifically focussing on women in science, but relevant topics all the same. There was much discussion of the importance of emotions and being able to display them, whatever you do in life. And that crying is indeed A-OK. If you haven’t seen Emily’s Grossman’s TedX talk on “Why science needs people who cry”, it’s a must-see.

Yesterday we discussed our scarring encounters with both narcissists and highly egotistical people in science and how they had influenced career choices. How those events led us on different trajectories to which we had planned. We talked also about what it’s like to encounter women in science who aren’t your allies and the damage they can do.

Yesterday we talked about betrayal, particularly by men (or sometimes women) in science who hold positions of power. We shared trustingly with each other the types of situations that can unfold when we stand up and speak up in situations that aren’t right. How viciously we can indeed be ‘put in our place’ by those in ‘leadership’ positions, even when trying to protect students, by taking a matter to the more senior scientist’s attention.

Yesterday our take-home messages though were on the importance of strength and kindness. As well as on the necessity for survival of genuine collaboration and support. Surround yourself with good people was our mantra.

Yesterday I drove home wondering if I had met these fantastic women some years earlier, whether my career wouldn’t have more recently taken such a different trajectory  to that I had imagined.I have no regrets where I am at present though. I love my job.

Yesterday I drove home thinking about how we tend to focus on the big negative events that women in science have encountered – the truly shocking episodes now causing headline ripples around the world. For us, that hold our own historical traumatic experiences, we might still be scared to talk about them and yet we must get over that fear, if we want change. But I acknowledged too, it’s the culmination of the constant grinding down and all the little examples of bias we face, rather than the big events on their own, that leave women like me demoralised and leaving academia

Yesterday in the middle of the night I was woken by my most special girl  in science, Miss6; as it turns out terrified by a dream about a wasp. In the two long hours I lay with her before she finally went back to sleep, we explored biology, maths and probability and critical thinking to allay her wasp fears.

Today

Today I woke up (exhausted) to International Day of Women and Girls in Science still going on in other parts of the world and a rejuvenating shout-out from my tribe.

Today I felt gratitude for my non-scientist friend and radio DJ/TV presenter Clarke Gayford suggesting I get on the Twitterverse three years ago. In a slow development to a bloom, I found my tribe on Twitter – many of them top notch women (and men) scientists and science communicators from around the world. Some of which I have met in real life and many I am yet to meet.

Today I acknowledged the importance of my tribe in helping me feel less alone, more empowered and for nourishing me to flourish and grow through their support. I would especially like to acknowledge Dawn Bazely, Jenny MartinImogen Coe, and Mel Thomson. We have had many discussions over women in science and it’s immensely benefitted and shaped my current thinking about the status quo and what needs to change.

Today I thought about the many powerful ‘campaigns’ over the last 18 months, often propagated via hashtags on Twitter (such as #shirtstorm, #distractinglysexy etc) that have made a difference for women in science. Each one has built on the last, to a degree, to lead to the ‘strength in numbers’ scenario I believe we currently sit in. We are about to head beyond the status quo into a new era for women in science.

Today I reflected on the topic of many discussions with my tribe – that the outrage mentality doesn’t always promote forward traction for women in science. Finding a kinder, gentler route forward that doesn’t alienate the men in science we also want to go on this journey to equality with, is something I firmly believe in. Our language choices matter too.

Today I worked towards plans for better recognition for women in science in New Zealand and for provision of greater visible role models to girls. I’m hopeful these will turn into a new exciting initiative.

Today I accepted a speaking engagement for youth in which I aim to be one of those visible and very positive role models to girls and boys.

Today, most of all, I mourned the loss of my friend a year ago exactly- also a woman of science, gone from us far too soon. Kath McBride was a gentle, talented and deeply caring soul (whom I have written about before) and she ultimately chose motherhood over science. In the time that I worked with her, and another woman scientist, we were a true team- a sisterhood. One that I miss.

Tomorrow

Tomorrow I will attend a hui in the Firth of Thames and discuss how to engage tamariki, including hine in science as we establish a long term science project in the area.

Tomorrow I will continue my personal mission to reduce the barriers to women in STEM careers, through excellent mentorship, positive role modelling, and aiding in removing bias through the STEM pipeline.

Tomorrow I will feel less afraid to tell more of my experiences in writing, so that with more voices in science we change the status quo.

Tomorrow I hope New Zealand will seriously consider adopting the Athena SWAN charter to address gender equality in science as a truly positive step forward for our country.

In this moment for women in science

I dedicate this post to:

  • the early career scientist and later-stage scientist who I laughed and commiserated with on International Day of Women and Girls in Science;
  • my Twitter tribe of women in science (and men who are supporters of women in science) – those mentioned within this post and the hundreds more who aren’t- you are all incredible;
  • all the women in science who have supported me and all the women in science I support in turn;
  • and most of all I dedicate this post to a woman in science taken too soon, Kath.

The final word goes to Ehmee:

Just between us, from one woman to another, it’ll take a while to recover

This post is dedicated to Kath, a woman in science
This post is dedicated to Kath, a woman in science

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