Towards Equality in Ecology: BES Edition

Every year, ecological organisations like the British Ecological Society and the Ecological Society of Australia make efforts to create a more inclusive society. Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to attend several annual meetings run by such organisations, and even in such a short space of time, the differences are marked. Name-tags with gender pronouns are starting to become the norm at large ecology conferences, the audience seems to represent a much more diverse community, and conversations and workshops around promoting inclusivity are now commonplace.

But these conferences of course only represent a part of the broader ecological community. So how is the discipline progressing on a day-to-day basis with regards to equality? Around the time of last year’s Annual Meeting of the British Ecological Society, I sat down with four members of the society and got their thoughts.

Dr. Luci Kirkpatrick, Post Doctoral Researcher, University of Antwerp

Disease Ecology

I think it could get a lot better. At my institute, we had a biology open day recently. There were PhDs, postdocs and professors giving talks. We had two or three female professors, but they were from from different buildings or groups from us so you’d never see them, which means that our students don’t see that diversity. Of the postdocs who spoke, all bar one were male. And then of the PhD students, the only females who spoke were from our lab group. And we’re one of six lab groups. If you have four or five professors, why is there not more diversity? For what it’s worth, this may also be a reflection of who decides to put themselves forward for these kinds of events and if you have limited numbers of minority representatives, that puts a lot of extra pressure on them.

I’ve had Masters students who have said that I was the first women they’d had teaching them here. That’s not right. They should see more representation and know that those opportunities are there for female students. And I was only filling in for a male teacher on sabbatical. I think it gives a false impression of who can succeed in academia.” For what its worth, this is even worse if we also think about BAME (Black, Asian, and Ethnic Minority) students, then there is even less representation.

Karen Devine, Head of External Affairs, British Ecological Society

I think the situation is getting better, but it’s not solved. I think the biggest difference more recently is that people are more willing to have a conversation. And they’re more willing to have an open conversation around specific challenges.

It’s great to reflect on women in science, there’s still a lot to doubt it now seems like an open dialogue that reflects the efforts of many individuals and institutions over many years.  But what’s really quite challenging is to how to tackle remaining barriers that are less discussed openly. I think conversations about the barriers facing individuals identifying as LGBT+ are increasing and mental health discussions are to some extent improving too, particularly for the younger generation.

For ecology the biggest barriers remain for those individuals from under represented communities and people of colour in particular.  It’s why we held a workshop at the Annual Meeting called Challenging Conversations, it provided a safe space to be able to share perspectives and start a conversation. We wanted to acknowledge that these are conversations are uncomfortable for many people and that the fear of offending people is actually shutting down the conversation, and that ultimately removing the barriers for everyone involves being able to talk together and work together.

Dr. Esther Ngumbi, Assistant Professor, University of Illinois

Microbial & Food Ecology

There’s so much beautiful work that’s always being done by talented researchers from across a wide spectrum. I think the biggest challenge is to find a way to share that, so that it’s not only the chosen few who are able to get into the academic pipeline. I would love to see that, to see us finding ways to get more young people involved in a more inclusive ecological society.

We have done a lot, but it hits me hard that we have a long way to go. That spectrum of scientists still is not as much of a rainbow as I would love it to be. Every day I’m asking myself, what can I do, why are we still losing people, what is it going to take to bring people from the LGBT+ community to the table, from different countries and ethnicities to the table. That for me is the next challenge. And I look forward to that.

As a female professor, I’m asked to be on committee after committee. It’s hard, but I’m happy to do so because every time I come to these meetings and see that there are fewer women than men, it inspires me to give an extra minute of my time to inspire other women. To mentor them, to show them that being a woman in science is still tough, but that it’s not as tough as people think it is, or as it used to be. It’s going to be hard, but it’s better now, and it’s very doable.

"We might see a change in plankton before we see a change in fisheries, which could give us a change to adapt how we fish in time to prevent collapses. But if we don’t have the data we won’t recognise these changes." (Image Credit: Abigail McQuatters-Gollop, CC BY 2.0)

“…the imbalance is still huge. I’ve just been promoted to associate professor at my school. And at that level there’s only a handful of women, maybe two or three other women besides me, and there are no other women professors yet. So we have a long way to go.” (Image Credit: Abigail McQuatters-Gollop, CC BY 2.0)

Dr. Abigail McQuatters-Gollop, Associate Professor, University of Plymouth

Marine Conservation

I feel like the conversation is definitely happening, and it wasn’t happening to this level even five years ago. The University of Plymouth’s School of Biological Sciences recently published a plan towards achieving gender equality. I know there’s a standard for that through the UK charter Athena SWAN, and that a lot of organisations are trying to go this route, so I think it’s a really positive move.

But the imbalance is still huge. I’ve just been promoted to associate professor at my school. And at that level there’s only a handful of women, maybe two or three other women besides me, and there are no other women professors yet. So we have a long way to go. And I know that not everybody thinks that’s a problem, which I find shocking and disappointing.

I think we need to stop this leaking pipeline of women getting PhDs and then dropping out of academia, because it’s so hardcore, and work-life balance becomes impossible. And everybody should have a good work-life balance. It should be your choice to work more, not to feel like you have to do it in order to prove yourself because you’re a woman and you’re judged more harshly.

So we do really have a long way to go, but I’m glad that the conversation is happening. I see it on social media, and even in the literature, there’s becoming a larger and larger literature base on gender equality in science. It’s starting to change, but it can’t change fast enough.

Title Image Credit: Pxfuel, CC0 1.0

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

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