Towards Gender Equity in Ecology: Part One

We spoke to prominent female ecologists about the challenges facing women in ecology today

We spoke to prominent female ecologists about the challenges facing women in ecology today (Image Credit: Shannon McCauley, Gretta Pecl, Marlene Zuk, CC BY 2.0, Images Cropped)

Today is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Woman are still under-represented in science, with UNESCO showing that at latest count, less than a third of all researchers in Western Europe and North America are women, with the highest percentage in any region of the world 47.2%, in Central Asia. Rather than go into depth about gender in ecology myself, I thought that I’d share some of the thoughts of prominent female ecologists that we’ve spoken to over the last year. We asked these scientists two simple questions. Has the gender gap closed during your time in the discipline, and what needs to happen to close it further?

Shannon McCauley, Assistant Professor of Biology, University of Toronto

Community ecology

I think we’ve come a long way. One of my mentors in graduate school was hired in 1980 as the first woman in the botany faculty. 1980 is not that long ago. I believe at the time there were comments like “do we want to take this step of hiring women?”. You would never hear that now. And if you did, it would be shut down by the research community. It’s just not acceptable. And I think that’s wonderful. There’s still implicit bias, I think it’s exhibited by everybody. Humans are really good at sorting people. We sort them on their characteristics, typically very quickly on observable characteristics like gender.

There was a study by Corinne Moss-Racusin back in 2012. They sent out CVs that were identical to faculty heads. They were absolutely identical, same experience, same qualifications. But the name was either John or Jennifer. And both male and female faculty were less likely to hire Jennifer, they would pay her less and they would mentor her less. And when you put a salary on it, you are directly valued. Money equals value. And they valued the female candidates almost 4,000 dollars less in a salary that was between 25 and 30 thousand dollars. That’s a big difference. One of the women in my department did an analysis at the University of Toronto and showed that women are paid about 14% less. I have not yet found that I’m thinking 14% less. So one one hand, you have the salary differential, on the other, the message is “sure, you can work for me, but I do value you less”. That’s really problematic just from a basic human standpoint.

Marlene Zuk, Professor, Associate Dean for Faculty, College of Biological Sciences, University of Minnesota

Ecology, Evolution and Behaviour

I would say there have absolutely been improvements in gender equality in science as a whole, you can look at statistics on proportions of women in different fields and you can absolutely demonstrate that.

But more to the point, I think that there has always been an interest in who is doing science as well as in what people in science are doing. More recently it’s been possible to be more open about it rather than feeling like it was just something that you were just whispering about to your colleagues or being in little groups to talk about at conferences. Having workshops like the one we’re doing now, is a good sign that people actually want to bring it out the open and have people at all levels talking about it. Not just something where, for example, “I’m going to complain because I think that my supervisor treats the male students differently than the female students but I don’t really know if that’s true or maybe it’s just me.” It’s being formalised.

Krystle Keller, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Charles Darwin University

Marine Ecology

As a female in science, it can be tough. I’m currently about to take maternity leave, and I’m quite stressed about how that’s going to affect my career, in particular my publication record.

This is likely to also disadvantage me when competing with colleagues for grants and promotions. Fortunately there are some funding opportunities that are aimed at women, particularly women getting back into the workforce, but I feel that more needs to be done to help with the transition. The awareness is there now and it’s a lot better now than it was before. But there’s still the question of what can we do to help women in science, particularly those who need to take a career break to have a family. One way could be for employers to allow for more flexible working conditions, like working part time and/or from home.

Celine Frere, Senior Research Fellow, University of the Sunshine Coast

Genomics & Animal Behaviour

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.

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.

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.

Gretta and her two daughters, Amelie and Ruby, promoting Redmap

“I’ll normally include photos of my kids in presentations at conferences… the point is subliminal messaging, to younger women that I’ve been breeding and I’m still here.” (Image Credit: Gretta Pecl, University of Tasmania, CC BY 2.0)

Gretta Pecl, Director of the Centre for Marine Socioecology, University of Tasmania

Marine Climate Change Ecology & Socioecology

Every single women that I know in ecology has got some kind of gender discrimination related story. One of my first employers once told me that even though I was a high performer in his department, I wasn’t a priority, because I had children and should be at home with them. That’s only 11 years ago. Many years ago I was going for promotion and needed my director’s support. I was expecting him to say no because it was what you call ‘accelerated promotion’ but I was already hitting the benchmarks so was keen to try. But he said “of course you’ve got my support, you’re sure to get it as the standard is so much lower for women anyway!”. This was someone responsible for 200+ people and he honestly believed that women had it much easier, when all the evidence from the University itself actually showed that women typically waited way too long when they went for promotion.

There are things that I would like to see Universities and STEM employers do, including things like unconscious bias training. Additionally, gender is but one aspect of the diversity and inclusion challenge – people from other demographics are also underrepresented in science. Getting more women on board is great, but we should be actively supporting more Indigenous researchers in Australia as well. I’d love to see unconscious bias training be compulsory for anyone making decisions for things like who gets a scholarship, promotion or a job.

There’s a lot of published  evidence that shows that male researchers (and to a much lesser extent, sometimes women) often do not believe a lot of the evidence on gender equity. That frustrates me. I have a lot of colleagues who just don’t see it as an issue. They’re very nice people, and they’re very smart people, so for me it’s hard to understand how they don’t always accept the peer-reviewed research, or my personal experience (and that of the other women they work with) of the issue. For me, it actually has a lot of parallels with challenges we have in communicating climate science. For climate change, we have a robust body of research clearly demonstrating the facts, and scientists are frustrated that even some educated members of the public don’t accept their science. Yet members of that same scientific community, see but don’t accept, the vast body of evidence demonstrating that gender equity in science is an issue. There are a lot of parallels I think – cognitive dissonance and bias – in both of those cases.

One thing that I really worry about, is that the next generation of younger women who want to be ecologists but also want to have kids, they’re wavering, and are maybe less keen on ecology. So I’ll normally include photos of my kids in presentations at conferences. For example, if I’m talking about recreational fishing I’ll use some pictures of my kids fishing. I don’t make a big point of it, but the point is subliminal messaging, to younger women that I’ve been breeding and I’m still here.


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