Bias, Role Models and Women in STEM

Post provided by Lee Hsiang Liow

As the newest Senior Editor of Methods in Ecology and Evolution – and someone who happens to have two X chromosomes – I’ve been asked to write a blog post to mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

After being a postdoc for almost ten years, I landed a permanent academic job in the city I wanted to live and raise my daughter in. I have great colleagues and I love my job as a researcher and teacher. I feel incredibly lucky: I am a female scientist and I “made it”.

When I showed the previous paragraph to a close friend and fellow “scientist who made it” he reminded me that a male colleague could easily have written exactly the same thing, only replacing “female” with “male”. Although I agree with his observation, I was deeply frustrated by what could be implied by his response.

His response illustrates a problem: some people may think it’s “all fine” now or that the issue of gender inequality has been solved. They cite the numerous measures in place at different levels to help women enter STEM fields and to ensure female scientists get an equal chance at staying in the game. It might be close to “all fine” in Scandinavia – a region known for long periods of parental leave and ingrained culture to put children and families above work – but it’s not all chocolate mousse and cheesecake everywhere in the world.

Gender Inequality is Still a Problem

Almost every other day, I read about girls and women who face obstacles of all flavours that prevent them from reaching their potential, whether in science or simply in society. Girls in Kenya, India, Nepal and many other places miss school days, or even drop out of school, when they reach puberty because of the taboo, myths and misinformation around menstruation. It’s hard for those of us living comfortable lives to imagine what it’s like not having the privacy, soap and water, clean menstrual products to use in school (or at home for that matter). To have boys jeering at us just because of our biology. And some of those jeering boys will grow up to be men with similar attitudes in those societies – perpetuating the problem.

How do we help these girls stay in school and reach their potential, whether in STEM or other subjects? How do we help reduce the number of child brides? Girls as young as eight who are forcefully married when they should be learning in school? International organisations are working on it, but we also need to contribute as individuals by being aware and helping when the opportunity arises.

Even in places where boys and girls are likely to stay in school for (almost) the same amount of time the odds are still stacked against girls. Studies have shown that inherent, subconscious bias among teachers affect girls’ performances in math and science classes. The centuries of deep-seated bias against female abilities can’t be easily changed. Just because many young girls like to play with dolls though, it does not mean they’ll be worse at maths at any age. We all have the responsibility to check our own biases conscientiously and to base our judgements and decisions on logic and analyses rather than our often flawed gut responses.

Acknowledging Women’s Achievements

Let’s come back to Scandinavia, where things seem perfect – at least to the eyes of outsiders who admire our welfare system and relative gender equality. In Norway, if there are two top candidates, one male and one female for a grant or a job, who are exactly equal, government measures encourage the employer to rank the candidate whose gender is underrepresented in that profession higher to help promote gender equality. But when are two academic candidates exactly equal in abilities and potential? Never! Even so, when male scientists miss out on awards or lose jobs to female competitors, you’ll often hear this cited as the reason. Many of us will have been told by male classmates that a professor favours us because of our gender or that we’ve been given an easier ride as a woman.

Downplaying awards, promotions, invitations to speak at conferences etc. as simply meeting diversity targets is offensive, hurtful and untrue. Measures that have been put in place to level the playing field between men and women do not (and are not intended to) give women an unfair advantage. They counter-balance historical, unconscious biases and really should be viewed as such.

The achievements of women in STEM should be celebrated and acknowledged. The same goes for BAME scientists, LGBTQ+ scientists, scientists with disabilities and straight, white, able-bodied male scientists. I look forward to the day when the language we use and the thoughts we think are less (or simply not) gender-focused, when we simply celebrate and acknowledge achievements of our fellow human beings.

Role Models in a Male Dominated Field

I have many great teachers and colleagues who inspire(d) me and who work(ed) with me, and I am filled with gratitude and love for them and the science they do. Most of them are men – as the fields I am a part of and that I am actively interested in (paleontology and macroevolutionary biology) are male-dominated even at graduate student and postdoctoral levels. But their gender is not something I think about often.

One of my mentors early in my career was the late Navjot Sodhi, a tropical conservation biologist. We met when he was a young assistant professor and I was a bachelors student in Singapore. Navjot and I spent time in the field together and we became friends. I remember him talking about how people told him he “couldn’t do it” and “would never make it” in grad school. He never said it explicitly, but I understood that whoever was making those unsupportive statements was belittling him because of his nationality, race and colour. In the end, Navjot not only “made it” but also helped many students, including myself, pursue their scientific interests and inspired them with his science, enthusiasm, humanity and humour.

Role models and mentors don’t need to be the same gender, ethnicity or nationality as the person they inspire. They just need to be supportive and encouraging, as Navjot (and many others) was for me. They need to be good people and excellent scientists to inspire us. It doesn’t have to fall to the handful of women in male dominated fields in STEM to be role models for the next generation of female scientists. It’s a task that should fall to all of us – we can (and should) all be role models for everyone who looks up to us. This is the message I hope you take from this post on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

Read more about International Day of Women and Girls in Science on the official website and the United Nations website. You can also head over to the Applied Ecologist’s blog and the Journal of Ecology Blog for more  posts about women in science.

Thanks to Chris Grieves for help in writing this post.

2 thoughts on “Bias, Role Models and Women in STEM

  1. Pingback: International Day of Women and Girls in Science 2018 | Journal of Ecology Blog

  2. Pingback: International Day of Women and Girls in Science | Animal Ecology In Focus

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