I hope as many men as women will read this blog post.
The problem of underrepresentation of women in leading positions in science (and many other fields, for that matter) is not just a problem of women – it concerns everyone in society. This is what Isabelle Vernos, research professor at the Center of Genomic Regulation, told me yesterday during a chat we had at ESOF, and I couldn’t agree more. It is widely viewed as the responsibility of women to close the gender gap (e.g. “you have to be more aggressive”). So when I attended the session “Women in science: mind the gap!” at ESOF, my eyes were eagerly scanning the room to see how many men were sitting there – hopefully, this topic should interest them too?
Most of the attendees were women, but at least one of the speakers was a man. Daniel Conley, professor at the University of Lund, is committed to promoting gender equality by being involved in the Women in Great Sciences (WINGS) project at his university. He is also the chair of one of the ERC panels for starting grants, and was proud to point out that his panel has had equal numbers of successful applicants for men and women. Why is this such a big deal? Because women, as it turns out, have dramatically lower success rates when applying for ERC grants than men do.
The ERC Working group on Gender Balance, of which Isabelle Vernos is chairwoman, found that for starting grants, the success rate for male researchers is around 10%, whereas female researchers don’t reach the 8%. In total, only 25% of applications come from women, and only 20% of grantees are female researchers. The numbers are similar also if one considers each discipline separately (life sciences, social sciences & humanities, physical sciences and engineering). So what is happening in the selection process that makes life difficult for women?
The working group took a look at the procedure, scanning for any detail that would in any way discriminate women. As a result, some changes have been made to the application procedure, such as an increase for the maternity allowance in eligibility, or the introduction of standardized formatted CVs. Still, the assessment is a human process, and a lot of bias could come in through the composition of the panel members. It turned out that while there was indeed an underrepresentation of women in the panels, there was no correlation between the percentage of women in a panel and the overall success rates of female scientists. In fact, Isabelle Vernos cautions that imposing quotas for the presence of women in grant panels bears a big risk: it can overwork women, leaving less time for them to concentrate on their research.
It is easy to explain why the asymmetry exists even though women are present in these panels. A randomized study showed that academics discriminated in hiring decisions against women who applied for a lab-manager position – and female faculty members were as discriminatory as males. “You have to overcome your unconscious bias”, explains Daniel Conley. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, you’re carrying these stereotypes in you”. If you look at the words used to appraise scientists in recommendation letters, male-associated words include “exceptional”, “remarkable”, “extraordinary”, while women are described as “hardworking”, “meticulous”, and “dependable”. The first important goal, thus, is to become aware of your own implicit bias (you can take the gender-career and the gender-science implicit assumption tests here). According to Daniel Conley, panels need to be trained in this, learn how to overcome their various biases and meet them head on with an open mind.
Not only the recommendation letters differ, but women also tend to be more modest in presenting themselves and their projects. “We have to be careful though, because we don’t want women to become men”, says Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, also an ERC panel chair. “We want to evaluate women as women and men as men.” And indeed, in her panels men applicants are interviewed in one block and women in another, which allows panel members to “tune in their ears into the different language.”
The problem is highly complex. Organizations can and should do their bit by setting up gender equality measures. But in the end, each one of us, men and women alike, needs to take responsibility to level the playing field. If we achieve a higher diversity, we all win.