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We are members of the Andrew Gonzalez lab , in the Biology Department at McGill University.
Montréal, Québec, Canada

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Girl talk. One gal’s thoughts about gender bias in Academia


Growing up, I assumed gender equality was a non-issue, at least when it came to school. We dealt with that ages ago, right? I spent my elementary school days happily playing soccer with the boys, and my aspirations of being a scientist were encouraged by my peers and teachers. In high school, a bright, young, female physics teacher taught one of my favourite classes. Girls dominated the top of my cohort. Glass ceiling? Oh, you must be referring to the song by that popular Canadian indie rock band, right?

I moved away to attend University. While an eye-opening experience in many ways, I remained blissfully unaware that a gender gap existed in Academia. After all (even though girls can’t do math) I found myself vying with my (female) roommate for the highest grade in calculus, and although in retrospect most of my professors were male, there were enough female professors to look up to that I guess I just really didn’t notice the discrepancy. Perhaps it was partly due to something I’ve come to affectionately call the “Guelph effect”. (Guelph is without a doubt the most accepting city I have lived in with regards to gender equality, LGBT issues, and just general all around respect regardless of whom you are or how you identify. The sense of community there is palpable.) Either way, I left undergrad entirely unknowing that I would soon be entering a world evidently rife with gender bias. 

Enter grad school. I can’t say for sure whether it was the shift in location, the move up the academic hierarchy from bachelors to masters, my newfound fascination with twitter, or perhaps just a coincidence, but suddenly it seemed like references to gender inequality in science (and academia in general) were everywhere. And I was fascinated. I learned that while female students equal, or even outnumber, males throughout much of graduate school, there is an attrition of women at every phase of the academic track, dropping from 42.6% of assistant professors to only 36.2% of associate professors and 21.7% of full professors (lower still in many STEM fields), and even then, women make less than their male counterparts

In a much-reported-upon new study, both male and female science faculty were found to be more likely to hire a male job candidate than female despite equal qualifications. Another study shows females had to be 2.5x as productive as males to land biomedical postdoc positions in Sweden (Sweden! A nation lauded for it’s gender equality). Female academics also do double the housework of their male counterparts, and while marriage has been shown to help male professors get ahead, not so for women (even in dual academic couples, men are more likely to rate their own career as more important than that of their partner). Then there are the reports of female scientists judged on attractiveness at conferences, and female bloggers contending with misogynist comments and threatening emails.  All that, and I haven’t even mentioned the baby aspect.

Now, before I get carried away here, I’ll confess that I’ve personally had no direct experiences in the academic world that have made me feel inferior to my male peers (which is perhaps why all of this research has caught me so off-guard). I’ve always felt that my work is respected by my (awesome!) male labmates and supervisor, I have an incredibly supportive partner, and I’m fortunate to have found a strong female role model in my co-supervisor. But I have to wonder, is this partly an artifact of my current position on the academic ladder? If I were a PhD student, or a postdoc vying for an elusive tenure track position, would I suddenly be treated differently, solely on the basis of my gender? It’s awful enough that we as a society still can’t seem to shake street harassment; shouldn’t an arena as supposedly objective as academia be able to rid itself of these antiquated notions of a gender hierarchy?

To end on a more positive note, it does seem that just recognizing the bias can help us work towards solutions. Editors at Nature have posited that simply working through a conscious loop can help eliminate gender bias in peer review, and there has been a (controversial) call for a pledge to help phase out all-male panels at science and tech conferences. Hopefully, things will continue to improve, and should I find myself doing a postdoc one day, these issues will be a thing of the past.

What do you think? Should I start using my gender-neutral middle name on job applications, or doth the lady protest too much?


A few excellent references I haven’t mentioned:
This excellent blog from The Last Word on Nothing
This study on "The Attrition of Women in the Biological Sciences"

6 comments:

  1. Perhaps it is simply that I am in a similar stage of life or position to you - but I also feel surrounded by posts, tweets, blogs, books, and roundtable discussions on the gender bias for women. Having reached my third (gulp!) decade of life, and hopefully nearing the end of my doctorate degree this year has put everything blunt perspective for me. One by one several of my female friends and colleagues have fallen into one of two categories - those that remain childless and have/search for a job... and those that have children and give up their academic career. I feel rather stuck in the middle.

    I have yet to hear an answer from all the various sources as to whether women can have it all... or can't. I heartily agree that a career in academia or sciences isn't easy no matter what your gender. Is being a woman always going to be harder in certain aspects (can you say 'childbirth'), yes. Do I want to act like a man to get ahead - not really...

    I will remain positive, hard-working, and hopeful that society as a whole will recognize the value a women has in the workplace AND the home and change accordingly. I will thank the many wonderful role-models and mentors (male and female) that I have in my life. And be proud to be part of a cohort of so many fantastic young female scientists!

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  2. Dear Carly,

    Nice blog, thanks for sharing it! Are you coming to the European Society of Evolutionary Biology conference in August by any chance? I am considering with a few colleagues to address this issue and to gather people that would like to change these things, as well as share ideas how we might do this. If you want to participate or maybe want to use our experience to get something similar started at another conference/ symposium...let me know!

    Cheers, Nellie Konijnendijk (Msc biology at the KU Leuven, Belgium)

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