Celine Frere: Gender, Representation, and Cultural Shifts in Ecology

The lack of senior female researchers can be daunting to younger female scientists, but openness and honesty combined with a willingness to strive for higher positions can bring about a cultural shift in ecology, says Dr. Celine Frere.

During my recent trip to the Sunshine Coast in Australia, I sat down with Dr. Celine Frere and talked about her work with charismatic species, which you can read about here. However, Celine is also one of Australia’s Superstars of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), an initiative of Science & Technology Australia designed to raise the profile of female scientists in Australia. With this in mind, I had a chat with Celine about gender equality in ecology, and the advice she’d give to young female researchers.

Sam Perrin (SP): Has the gender gap closed at all in ecology since you’ve been involved in the discipline?

Doctor Celine Frere, Faculty of Science, Health, Engineering and Education, University of the Sunshine Coast (CF): I don’t think that the gender gap is an ecology problem, I think it’s a problem within science generally. And an executive problem too, look at corporations and how many women are in high level positions. I think it’s a much bigger issue than ecology.

I sit on the SAGE (Scientists in Australia Gender Equity) program, which is the equivalent of the Athena SWAN in the UK. It came about to try and address gender equity in scientific disciplines. We see that at the PhD level, women are the majority. You can see that in my lab very clearly, I don’t discriminate on gender, but it just happened that there are more women willing to undertake studies in animal ecology and behaviour. But there’s a massive drop-off at the post-doc level, there’s difficulty retaining women in science.

It’s interesting because some of the debates say we need to encourage women to take part in STEM or a science discipline. But that’s not the issue, women are interested in science, it’s retaining them that is becoming the challenge.

SP: I’ve often heard talk that blames the lack of women in higher positions on their desire to have kids.

CF: Men want to have kids too. But women are still expected to look after them. It’s a cultural shift that needs to happen. I think that if we were to ask the majority of men who they would want to thank for their success, most of them would say their wife, for their support and enabling them to do the things they’ve done. And I think that needs to go both ways, and if that is going to happen there needs to be a cultural shift. There’s a lot of inequality that needs to be addressed.

SP: What needs to happen next to address that inequality?

CF: One thing that needs to happen, is we need to instill the idea of becoming leaders in women who are starting out in ecology. We know how academia works, and that the structural change needs to be made at the executive level, and that women need to access the executive level to make changes. I like to sometimes remind women in science that a career in science is great, but becoming a vice chancellor…. that is where the change is going to happen.

I strongly believe that if you want something enough you’ll get what you’re after, but is it going to be harder? Yes it will be. But I don’t think that should stop us.

SP: What advice would/do you give to women in STEM who look up at the senior positions and see a dearth of women?

CF: What I’ve tried to do is be very honest about the challenges that I’ve faced. Because I think that hopefully will prepare them for what’s to come. You don’t want them to have rose-tinted glasses about what it is to be a female academic. Often we look up and see those who have succeeded, men and women equally, we look at them and see everything they’ve achieved. But we need to show the younger generation that it took some of those people a 99% rejection rate to get to where there are. So absolutely, look at how great these people are, but look at how many failures they’ve had to face, because they go hand in hand.

So that’s important for me, that young female ecologists understand that it requires persistence. I strongly believe that if you want something enough you’ll get what you’re after, but is it going to be harder? Yes it will be. But I don’t think that should stop us.

SP: There’s been a lot of focus on women in STEM over the last year. Do you think there’s been enough focus on the LGBT+ community or people of colour within that?

CF: I don’t think that there’s enough focus on minorities, period. But it’s very complex issue. I think that as part of the Superstars of STEM last year, Science and Technology Australia selected a wide range of women. They tried to represent the mosaic of women in science, across spectrums of age, discipline and also sexual orientation, which was great. That’s part of what the younger generation needs. Yes, a cultural shift and policy changes, but we also need women who are willing to be visible and stand up and say “this is why I’m here”. That’s what the younger generation needs. To see the diversity that’s already here.

It’s important for us women to remember a few things. To mentor younger generations, to invite them to author key papers, to invite them to co-write grants, getting them to meet your network. Those are things that can change someone’s career that men do all the time. Women also need to remember to be vulnerable and open about who they are, and about the experiences they face. To make sure that people can identify with you, I think that’s really important. If you have a mosaic of women from different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, that are willing to be out there and be themselves, that provides a platform for younger generations to identify themselves.

And then also I think that as women, if we want to change culture, then we need to strive for those executive positions. Because that’s where change will happen.

I think what we need to do as a society is to appreciate the differences… and to see that diversity actually enhances productivity and society.

SP: We’ve been talking about what women need to do. Is there anything you’d like to see men do?

CF: Well people say that we need men to advocate change, which is true. This isn’t simply an issue of women, at the end of the day anybody in academia that wants to have a good family-work balance is going to be challenged. I see a lot of male colleagues that want to be incredible fathers, and want to be there for their family, who also face similar issues. They miss out on attendance to conferences, not necessarily being able to work until late at night, and things like that.

I’ve had great male mentors, and I thank them for that. I’ve met people I wish I could squash underfoot, and I thank them for that. Because they push you to do better. I think that at the end of the day I don’t expect men to understand what it’s like to be a woman and I don’t think women should be expected what it’s like to be a man, but I think what we need to do as a society is to appreciate the differences and to value those differences and to see that diversity actually enhances productivity and society.

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