Where do EMCRs stand in addressing gender equity issues?

Professor Jenny Martin
Professor Jenny Martin

If you are aware of the gender equity issues still plaguing academia, then chances are you know of Professor Jenny Martin, ARC Australian Laureate Fellow from the University of Queensland and campaigner for gender equity. You also likely follow her on Twitter (@JennyMartin_UQ) or via her blog. If you don’t, then you should. Let me elaborate.

On the 6 May at Monash University, Melbourne, Jenny opened her seminar, ‘Gender equity in academia – making it happen’ by stating how happy she was to see so many men in the audience, and that these seminars, which she gives regularly, are too often full of women. Indeed, I estimated the audience to be about 40% men, many of them in senior roles. What I as an ECR was surprised by, was that there weren’t more ECRs or PhD students present. I will return to this observation, but would first like to discuss some of the issues raised by Jenny during this seminar, as well as what she proposed we do about them.

As any good scientist will do, Jenny first established the problem. She used a combination of research studies, case studies, and personal anecdotes to emphasise what we all know to be true: women are still grossly underrepresented in senior positions. She affirmed that addressing this imbalance is in everyone’s best interest, citing evidence of improved overall results in companies with a high percentage of female board members. With that established, how do we go about rectifying the problem?

Be informed about gender imbalance

Arguments for why gender imbalance occurs are mainly based on (1) women choosing family over careers, and (2) women not having the skills and/or qualifications to succeed in senior positions. Both of these assertions are false. Women are overlooked for promotions, and held back or forced out by a system that favours their male counterparts. Jenny quoted Gordon Cairns, male champion for change, with a statement that particularly hits home:

“Let’s not pretend that there aren’t already established norms that advantage men. Men invented the system. Men largely run the system. Men need to change the system.”

Awareness of gender imbalance needs to be raised. Jenny advocates for institutional gender statistics and rates of pay to be published online, a simple method to raise awareness of any imbalances. Informed people will make gender equity a priority, and address it.

Address the issue

Published in a letter to Nature, Jenny called for conference organisers to establish gender-balance policies, and for their gender statistics to be published online. Why shouldn’t we expect the percentage of female plenaries and speakers to reflect the conference delegation? Jenny petitioned everyone to seek out gender policies, and to request one if it isn’t publicly available. Further, she encouraged us to support only those conferences that have appropriate speaker gender-balance and anti-harassment policies. She also extends these policies to all panels and committees, and uses the words of Elizabeth Broderick, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner,

“If we don’t actively and intentionally set out to include women, we will unintentionally exclude them”.

Know your biases

An identical CV will be rated differently in terms of employability and potential income if it is headed by a female name compared to a male name. University students use different descriptors when assessing male and female lecturers; reviews of male professors are more likely to contain the words ‘genius’ or ‘intelligent’, whereas female professors are more likely to be described as ‘strict’ or ‘aggressive’. Jenny challenged us all to take the Harvard implicit association test. I did, and was surprised to find that I displayed a moderate association of men with careers, and a slight association of females with family. For the record, I am a career-driven female with no children, raised by a career-driven mother, and I have spent more time in labs headed by females than males, yet I am still biased. We all have biases, and we need to understand and then overcome them.

At this point, what I saw as a lack of PhD students and ECRs in the room struck me as a problem. It is at academic Level B that the percentage of women in academia drops drastically. Jenny spoke openly of the perspective-changing events that occurred to her during her career, the standout being told (as an MCR) that, despite already heading a successful structural biology group, she was not seen as a leader. She then went on to be awarded an ARC Laureate Fellowship. Perhaps this explains why MCRs were present in force. MCRs are the first cohort to feel a major imbalance. Although PhD students and ECRs already have unconscious gender biases, they as a group are yet to experience the results of that bias. If we are to overcome gender imbalance, we need to be involved from these early stages so that we can prevent the next generation of leaders from propagating the problem. Jenny has already provided us with a range of measures to take. Be aware. Publicise the issues. Be willing to act. Make addressing gender imbalance a priority.

Dr Nyssa Drinkwater
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Monash University.

EMCR Pathways Issue 4

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