When I worked at the bench, I wasn’t quite aware of the gender disparities that exist in academia. My PhD advisor was a woman, and she always taught us to stand up for ourselves, and certainly prioritized diversity within her own lab. The department I worked in during my PhD was also very accepting of different genders, cultures, skin colors and origins, so I think most of us felt that our differences were celebrated.
Then, when I had enough data to go to conferences and started realizing how my work fit into that of others in the field, it was initially very exciting. These meetings were also eye opening for other reasons. I did notice that the societies I was a part of prioritized diversity and inclusion, made sure to have an equal number of women on panels, and asked women to organize events as part of society meetings.
But, increasingly, over the years, I began to realize that there were real issues with women getting ahead in academia. First of all, I realized at some point that the department in which I did my graduate work only had two female PIs, one of which was mine. But she did not let herself be intimidated by this fact. Similarly, I didn’t personally experience this myself, but I did hear of many instances where men did not value the opinion of women and sought to ask the same question from their male counterparts, for example on a panel or during a meeting. This practice not only undermines the power that women have- and they do have it but it’s not obvious under all these layers of oppression- but also creates an imbalance that will overtime only perpetuate this sense that women are less capable of doing something.
In the academic world, where power imbalances are so prevalent, women are fighting many battles- psychological, financial, biological, etc. Some of these can’t be helped, but in cases of blatant discrimination, men also need to step up. Men who lead organizations, departments, or really any kind of group or team, need to ensure that they bring on the best and brightest minds, and the people who can get the job done, and that they do not prioritize other men purely based on gender. This can also be very damaging if the women in the group have the perception that men are being celebrated more.
So for those who want to help, what can be done?
I think this is a question that the entire scientific community struggles with, and extends beyond the walls of academic institutions, into scientific meetings, to various other groups and workplaces, and are therefore more widespread issues than just for the academic community.
The first thing to ask ourselves is why this perception exists- is it just because it’s always been this way? Do men actually make a conscious effort to change this perception for themselves, and within the context in which they operate on a daily basis? Do they make sure that the women in their group have a voice and that it is heard? If a woman in the group expresses a concern of discrimination, is it being addressed?
It would be great to hear more stories from those who prioritize diversity and inclusion within their organizations, such as on their boards and in other leadership roles. It is also important to prioritize having diverse points of view from those who are not only women, but also women of color and other origins, and may thereby experience additional barriers to success.
Collecting data and stories on particular issues has proven to be a successful strategy for several organizations, and it would be beneficial to utilize this type of strategy within any group to assess internal diversity. Making sure that everyone is being heard and that there is a conscious effort to celebrating their views is really critical within any community.
Data on this topic has shown time and time again that women are being discriminated against in terms of salaries, leadership positions, and other professional opportunities. Truly changing the landscape for them to feel more powerful will require the participation of various groups, and a conscious effort from men to help with this change at multiple levels both within academia and beyond.
This post represents my personal views and not the views of my employer (University of California).