F word forum on Science, The Wheeler Centre

The panel (L-R): moderator Maxine Beneba Clarke, Dr Katie Mack, Assoc Prof Kate White & Prof Sharon Lewin

This year The Wheeler Centre has been running a series of events under ‘The F word’ banner (spoiler: it’s ‘feminism’). I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Haitian-American writer Roxane Gay in conversation with local writer Maxine Beneba Clarke during March, and subsequently organised to attend their Science panel with some colleagues in April.

Again Maxine Beneba Clarke moderated proceedings, and she was joined by cosmologist Dr Katie Mack (known to the twitterverse as @AstroKatie); Keeping Women in Science author, Assoc Prof Kate White; and infectious disease physician and scientist, Prof Sharon Lewin. Both Mack and Lewin recalled developing a spark for science as children but experienced gendered obstacles along the way. Lewin’s parents steered her away from male-dominated engineering towards medicine, and she credits a couple of female role models for her arc back toward basic science research. By contrast, Mack could find only male role models, but her stubborn nature and early research internships saw her through.

The work of White and countless other researchers (not to mention the everyday observations of most STEM academics) indicate that these aren’t isolated cases – women are not achieving equitable representation in STEM fields, and the inequity is most pronounced in senior, leadership roles. In the first instance, Lewin and Mack highlighted the conflicts between the normative academic career path and common personal goals – the pressure to globe-trot from PhD to post-doc, to post-doc, to (maybe, if you’re lucky!) a tenure-track position coincides with many women’s child-bearing years. Our institutions and funding models don’t encourage flexibility, or an equitable division of childcare between parents.

The second major obstacle raised was bias. Mack reminded us that conscious bias and harassment still exist, while unconscious bias is insidious and pervasive. Women are still often told that “physics isn’t for girls”, that they’re not “smart enough”. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that women’s credentials are judged more harshly than if the same achievements are attached to a masculine name. Science is not the meritocracy that we imagine.

Girls are not told they’re geniuses.

 – Dr Katie Mack

This is a frustrating state of affairs given that, as White summarised, research suggests that gender is socially constructed. Experiences shape our plastic brains throughout our lives and there’s no basis for the ‘hard wiring’ tales that the media are so fond of, added Mack.

The panelists expressed some optimism for the future. White characterised the traditional model of science as one of ‘monastic males’, which transitioned to a baby boomer pattern of breadwinning males with domestic support. Now she sees that Generations X and Y, men and women alike, seek work-life balance and institutional change. Lewin pointed out that in spite of the competitive incentives in academia, many workplaces manage to foster collegiality.

What shape might institutional change take? The NHMRC’s new gender equity policy is an exciting development, and White said that some European funding agencies are demanding consideration of gender issues as a component of every application. Lewin agreed that gender attitudes affect HIV research, her specialty, when women are left out of clinical trials but bear the burden of disease. Meanwhile gender discussion is almost entirely absent from Mack’s field and such requirements could at least get the conservation started.

Flexibility, parental leave and mentoring got their requisite mentions, and Lewin went on to highlight the need for training in business management for lab leaders. Mack suggested that fewer, longer post-docs and faster transition to tenure and other settled jobs might assist. White (and I!) advocate for setting representation targets on committees and for senior roles.

Dr Emily Nicholson deftly captures women, science and work-life balance in one drink order.

The conservation covered a lot of well-worn ground for the more informed audience members, but was a solid primer for newbies. It was perhaps a little too polite. Lewin commented early that women ‘tend to undersell themselves’, and I think it could’ve been useful to discuss and debunk gender and leadership stereotypes in more detail. Scientists were discussed as ‘passionate’ and ‘not seeking a 9-to-5 job’, and I got the uncomfortable feeling that we were entering into the ‘do what you love’ territory that pressures academics to perform hour upon hour of unpaid labour:

If we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.

 – Miya Tokumitsu

I, for one, am a passionate scientist unashamedly seeking a ‘9-to-5’ or otherwise well-bounded job! My colleagues and I honoured our commitment to science and to work-life balance with some beaker-shaped beers and post-forum dumplings.


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