International Women’s Day: What are the Biggest Problems Facing Gender Equality in STEM?

In recent years, there has been an increasing focus on encouraging women to join STEM fields, but there is still work that needs to be done. We asked our female Associate Editors what the biggest problems facing the push towards gender equality within STEM fields today are. Here are their answers:

janaJana McPherson: My impression is that entering is not the issue. Certainly in my fields of conservation and ecology, there seem to be lots of women undergraduates and graduates and still a very decent proportion of female postdocs. I think it is beyond that level that women start to become increasingly rare. At least in part this likely reflects the fact that it is around post-doc time that biological clocks start ticking, and that it is neither easy nor necessarily desirable to combine starting and raising a family with a prolific production of publications, a heavy teaching load and the need to magic up a bustling research lab out of the blue. To reduce that hurdle, I think universities and academics have to become more accepting and accommodating of part-time effort. And I mean institutionally as well as individually. I have conducted research on a part-time basis for years now, and have seen many colleagues and collaborators in academia positively flummoxed by the concept that NOTHING (work-wise) gets done between when I leave the office on a Thursday at 2pm and when I return to work Monday morning. And yes, my life outside the office involves minutes and the odd hour here and there where I’m not directly interacting with my kids or looking after the household during which I could theoretically get the odd bit of work done. But I have tried that approach and found it rather stressful, sleep-depriving and frustrating for family members competing for my attention with whatever ‘quick’ piece of work I was trying to finish.  So now I leave work at the office and whatever does not get done within office hours just has to wait until I’m next at work, no matter how urgent.

Tamara Munkemuller2Tamara Münkemüller: I guess that the main problems are related to family planning. On the one hand, in many countries it takes long to get a permanent position and it feels like taking a risk to have children before this. On the other hand, one seemingly frequent constellation are couples of two scientists where the man is a bit older. In this situation it often happens that the older person gets a permanent position first and the younger follows and tries to adapt. Then there is the more subtle problem of different communication styles of men and women and numerous selection processes that tend to prefer a communication style that is thought to be more typical for men.

Satu Ramula: I think that one of the current challenges is to keep women in the system. Many female scientists leave academia at some point, which makes the sex ratio skewed as there are not enough qualified women to compete for academic positions at upper levels. Continue reading