Gender Diversity and Equality in Academic Science

A few weeks ago, while discussing the issues of unequal opportunities for women in academic science, one of my guy friends said:

“I honestly don’t get it. I know a lot of women who are successful scientists, work seven to four, and then go home to be with their children. And they tell you that’s what they want and that they’re happy. Women have different goals and perspectives, and when a baby comes along it just changes what they want.”

The conversation that followed, along with others, has led me to some interesting insights which I hope to share, especially with my other male colleagues.

The first thing that we men have to come to grips with, is that the privileges we derive from being male in a male-dominated society are real, if sometimes intangible and subtle. This means that men at the population level are not only more confident (or apparently so) and therefore, “successful”, but also that we as a gender take on traits and behaviors that are described as, well…masculine. This doesn’t mean at all that men are better, more confident, and/or competitive leaders, but merely that we’ve grown up being told that this is how we SHOULD be.

This, coupled with our physical bulk and the subtle social and genetic biases we’ve inherited from thousands of years of primate and later human evolution, mean that, as a whole, if you’re born a man into a male-dominated society, you already have a huge advantage over someone who is born a woman. This is called privilege, and whether you like it or not, it exists. Also likely is the fact that, because you’ve lived with it all your life, you don’t notice it’s there only for you and not for others, and therefore do not imagine that people who don’t share that privilege, in this case women, might have to struggle with things you’ve never even thought of.

As we get used to the amazing diversification that is occurring in the twenty-first century, we men have been recognizing and even been pushing into the sphere of domestic life. We’re discovering that there is something to the interaction with our families beyond that of the provider, and are for the most part embracing and re-defining fatherhood (See for example, this article on being a male scientist and father at the same time). For those of us who think like this, it is a privilege and choice that we get to partake of.

For women, as you may have already guessed (and I say this with the caveat that I DO NOT have personal experience) this is different. When feminism arose in the early part of the last century, women were fighting for the basic rights of legally participating in society. This later turned into the fight to have equal opportunities in the workplace, and the chance to “succeed,” in the way that men were “succeeding.” But societal and cultural values didn’t catch up, so that women continued to carry this immense paradigm (willingly for some, not so for others) that it was not only a woman’s responsibility to be a caregiver, but that it was an inherent part of her “womanness.”

This leads to a very different scenario when approaching the work-life balance dilemma of having your cake and eating it too. For men, nothing is inherently lost by choosing to be fully career focused (at least not in society’s eyes, and therefore, not in the eyes of that innermost part of you that is influenced by the culture and society in which you grew up). For women, it comes down to a choice which ultimately ends in sacrifice: either you sacrifice your “womanness” by not having children and a family as “you’re meant to do,” or you sacrifice your chance at a competitive career. While we are familiar with stories of women who regret not having children, we are less familiar with those who regret having them, this topic being taboo precisely because of the huge societal guilt that comes attached to this way of thinking.

Of course, some women decide not to sacrifice either, and so begin a wonderfully complex balancing act that, without a supportive partner or community, is near impossible to accomplish.

And this is where the problems in academia come in because men are fertile well into their late years, but women are not. Unfortunately, a woman’s best child-bearing years coincide with the years in which academia puts the most pressure on everyone to “prove themselves” to the system. And while men have the choice of surrogacy and adoption, a fertile woman who wants to have children of her own does not. So the constant battle for attention between career and family happens way before the family has even come along. And though programs like the Athena Swan initiative encourage institutes to promote family-friendly hours and environments, there is a wide gulf between the policies and the culture.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how much maternity and/or paternity leave (because most policy is still written with “classic” heterosexual couples in mind) your institute offers. So long as the culture at an institute continues to subtly discourage women from having a family, women are loosing freedom to make that choice by receiving undue pressure where there should be unconditional support. The anecdotes are plenty: group heads telling their trainees having children is the worst decision they could make for their career, or offering them contraception so they don’t get pregnant while they work for them, as well as students and postdocs being too uncomfortable to disclose their pregnancies until denying it is inevitable. Until initiatives and funding agencies don’t take surveys about attitudes into account, they will continue to be a mere box to tick for the institute to get more funding.

As men, we need to take a part of gender equality discussions precisely because the majority of academic positions are still held by men who shape the culture. And whether you roll your eyes at the concept of mansplaining or not, we all need to listen more than talk at these meetings, and try our hardest to use that talking for open and honest discussions to cooperate towards solutions, not to decide, in our male-biased opinion, what is and isn’t a problem. Because like it or not, there is a gender bias in academia, and men are blind to that bias (check out this HelloPhD episode on that topic).

I, for one, would like to see workshops on the “feminine,” or “caregiver” traits (emotional intelligence, nurturing, empathy, cooperation and mindfulness) being taught to everyone alongside the already existing workshops on the “masculine,” or “provider” traits (assertiveness, competitiveness, confidence and public speaking) being taught to women for a true gender equality in a field that advances by embracing all aspects of being human, regardless of sexuality, gender, sex, race, religion, and life goals. Alongside this, we need to redefine our cultural views of “success,” in academia to reflect life-satisfaction and equal opportunities, not just one certain career path and position.

And if you’re like me, and are planning on having your cake and eating it too when it comes to family and career, checking out articles such as these might give you some interesting insights as to what that wonderful journey called parenting, is all about.

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Juan Pablo

Juan Pablo Ruiz is currently working towards a DPhil in Biomedical Sciences. His research interests are in tissue and stem cell engineering, as well as developmental biology. He also has a wide array of interests which include positive psychology, literature, and creative writing. He recently received an ASD level 1, or Asperger's diagnosis, and is now working to break the stigma surrounding mental health and neurodiversity in academia.

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