Towards Gender Equity in Ecology: Part Two

Professors Amy Austin, Eva Plaganyi, Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, Prue Addison and Johanna Schmitt (not pictured) share their views on gender equity in ecology (Image Credit from left: Amy Austin, CSIRO, NMBU, Synchronicity Earth; All images cropped, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In Part Two of our ongoing look at gender equity in ecology, four prominent female ecologists share their thoughts on how gender equity in ecology has progressed, and where it needs to go from here.

For Part One of this series, click here.

Eva Plaganyi, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO

Applied Marine Ecology

Throughout my career, I have worked in very male dominated environments, both with quantitative fishery scientists and fishers, who are generally male. I’m often one of one or two women in a room with all men and that does present some challenges, and it certainly has been hard. I still do have a lot of colleagues who don’t recognise that gender equity in ecology is an issue or problem. I beg to disagree, because there are some big challenges that come with being a female in ecology, and I’ve gone through quite a few of those. I’ve had children also and it hasn’t been easy juggling family and career.

But it has been changing, there is a push now, for example, an active effort to involve women as keynote speakers. I don’t even mind if I’m a token invitee at a meeting. I don’t feel insulted, because when I was a young researcher I looked long and hard and I really battled to find any role models. Particularly women who had children, so that I could see and know that it was possible to combine parenting and a science career. I try to be that role model for the younger women who now battle with some of the challenges I battled with. At the same time, I used to think the challenges were about that very hard early stage, when you have kids and are simultaneously trying to publish. But as I’ve gone through my career I’ve realised it stays hard, and that’s why we lose a lot of women at the senior levels.

We have a lot of young female researchers, but in Australia, if you go up through the University system we actually have very poor representation of females. Senior science positions are only 14% female at CSIRO, which isn’t very good. I think there are improvements in understanding why that is. There’s a lot of work on unconscious bias now, which is a big contributing factor. I don’t think a lot of my male colleagues intend to behave in some of the ways they do, and unconscious bias plays a big role in that. We need to get that dialogue going and talk about things like making place for people that are more soft-spoken for example. Not paraphrasing women’s words at meetings as some of my male colleagues do. Not cutting them off, instead giving them a chance to speak, asking their opinion.

There’s still a lot of work to be done just to have an environment where women can be women and don’t have to act like a man in order to make it and to fit in. I have a lot of sympathy with how women try to survive in science. I know women who have gone the route of being part of the boys’ club and that’s how they survive. Some of them are like me, and are just super-extroverted which helps. But some of my more soft-spoken colleagues really battle, and I feel there should be a space for them to contribute. But the environment isn’t conducive to that, and it’s a very subtle thing to try and change. So yes, there are some improvements, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

Prue Addison, Conservation Strategist, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust

Conservation Biology

I think it’s getting better. Certainly more people are talking about women in science, which is really good. The talk is there, but I still think that in terms of career progression and interview panels that there’s a lot that could be done to help women progress through the field. I did see a job advertised externally by a charity that asked candidates not to put their name or anything identifiable on their CV, as they do a double blind review of candidates. That’s a great step forward, because there are so many unconscious biases that we’re not addressing and it’s one way to jump that initial hurdle of unconscious bias against women. It prevents judging them for taking time off or for just being a woman.

So it’s improving but there’s still a long way to go. There’s some interesting work done by female academics. Emma Johnson at the University of New South Wales, and Emily Nicholson at Deakin University have worked on some papers around combating discrimination against women in science, in academia in particular. Emily wrote a short piece around how women who have had kids can write their CVs so they look far more competitive, and account for the time off to make it sounds as impressive as it really is, so they’re not penalised for the time that they’ve had with their kids.

Johanna Schmitt, Professor at the Department of Evolution and Ecology, University of California

Evolutionary Genetics

Well here’s an example. When I was an assistant professor at Brown University, I was the first female hired in my department. There had recently been a lawsuit where they had denied tenure to three female faculty members of Brown. Those women had been able to find documentation of male faculty members writing to one another, trying to figure out a way to deny these women tenure. So they sued, and they all got tenure. And after that, every time that Brown ran a national search for a new candidate, it had to be advertised as a national search, and if they wanted to hire a white male they had to demonstrate that that white male was the best out of that national search pool.

Two things happened afterwards, one was that the quality of the faculty at Brown went way up. The representation of women and minorities also went up. So sometimes advancements in gender equity happen because of structural changes. You get traction, things level off, and then you get traction again. Another example is parental leave. There was an MIT study back in the 90s where very eminent scientists at MIT did an exhaustive report in which they were able to show that female scientists, even national Academy members, had less lab space than males. So then things changed and got better at MIT. That’s a couple of examples of people demonstrating inequality and institutions doing something about it.

There are 2 things that I think still have to be overcome. One is I think implicit bias, which I think is more insidious than the overt misogyny which is still out there. The idea is that we all have these gender schemas that we expect to find in people. Whether that’s a product of gender, people in certain ethnic groups. For instance, there was a study where they had actors playing a role of supervisor who was reprimanding an employee. And the same role was played by either a man or a women. The supervisor was either angry or sad. And they asked the participants who saw these videos to rate the effectiveness of the supervisor. The angry man was rated most effective, the angry female was rated the least effective. People will react to the same behaviour from men and women very differently.

But it’s not just implicit activity. Look at the recent report on assaults at field stations. There’s lots of well-documented examples of that going on in ecology in the past. In this MeToo era, we were talking about implicit bias as being more deadly, but I think there’s a very small but very toxic set of individuals responsible for more sinister behaviour, and those things are still going on the way they did when I was a graduate student. And it is happening in ecology.

Anne-Sverdrup-Thygeson has made it her life's mission to fascinate the world - with insects

Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson: “Entomology has been very male dominated science. But it is changing. Nowadays there are quite a few very visible female entomologists. And that’s a very good thing.” (Image Credit: Håkon Sparre, CC BY 2.0)

Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, Professor of Conservation Biology, Norwegian University of Life Sciences

Conservation Biology, Forest Management

It is moving in the right direction, but it’s also moving quite slowly. At NMBU we still only have 22% female professors, which is not a lot. In my research group we are 2 female professors, working together a lot. I think this has an effect – that we attract more female Master and PhD students.

Making a good social environment and having fun together is also a part of doing good science. We should have a low threshold for asking questions and spend time discussing topics freely. It’s important to create a social environment of scientists where asking questions is allowed and encouraged. Where the point is not necessarily to find answers and conclude, but rather the process of curiosity and the discussion itself.

I think changes are coming and that it’s really important to have female role models. Entomology has been very male dominated science. But it is changing. Nowadays there are quite a few very visible female entomologists. And that’s a very good thing. I also think Norway is one of the better places to be a female scientist. If you read Lab Girl by Anne Hope Jahren, it seems a lot worse to be a female scientist in the US.

Associate Professor Amy Austin, Principal Research Scientist, University of Buenos Aires

Terrestrial Ecosystem Ecology

When I started as a graduate student, my entire lab was male. I was the only woman in my first year of graduate school. That was hard in the beginning, but right after that there was a huge influx of women, to the point that when I finished my PhD, the vast majority of the PhD students were women. But of that group, probably only half then entered into academic positions. So even at that level, you already have only half of the women continuing. And the reasons are complex and varied, but I don’t necessarily think it’s just a generational issue. I think that at that critical point between the doctorate level and the post-doc level, there’s still a large drop-off in the numbers of women.

Overall in ecology, you have increasing representation of women at higher and higher levels, but still it’s a relatively smaller proportion than you might expect, given the number that are at the PhD stage. I don’t have all of the answers as to why that’s happening, but I think that it’s still happening. We can’t just say “if we wait ten years then we’ll have more representation”, I think that those numbers are still dropping off.

What I do think can have a backlash unfortunately is that if there’s so much emphasis on having representation by women at all levels, it can also generate some resentment amongst the general scientific public, who then say “we always have to talk about this issue”. But if we don’t pay attention, then it won’t change, I am convinced of that. If we don’t try and change these numbers then we won’t change the representation.

If there is a female professor you’d like to hear from, please let us know.

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