How has everything changed for women in research?
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Has anything changed for the #distractinglysexy women in research?

23 Jun 2017

It is no secret that there is a significant gender gap in science and tech roles, but have recent movements aimed at raising the profile of women in research made any difference at all?

There are not enough women in research. There is a significant gender gap that has, to date, proved difficult to close. The stereotype of research – and, indeed, STEM itself – as a male field has been pervasive, permeating into the psyches of students, parents and guidance counsellors, and young women can often find it difficult to break into the sector. Those that do can often feel overlooked.

In 2015, it felt like a sea change was finally coming. After Tim Hunt’s comments – that women shouldn’t work in labs, as “three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and, when you criticise them, they cry” – women stood up, en masse, and forcefully responded: ‘We have had enough’.

2015 was the year of #distractinglysexy and #ILookLikeAnEngineer. It was the first year of Inspirefest. It was the year of #FeministFutures, and the backlash to failed corporate conversations, for example, with #HackAHairDryer.

In many ways, it felt like the start of a movement. In reality, it was just bringing to centre stage the work that had been going on – through organisations such as WITS (Women in Technology and Science) – behind the scenes for years. These movements brought women in STEM to the forefront, and made people in the community sit up and take notice.

Since then, the movement – and the conversation that goes alongside it – hasn’t stopped. Women are, rightly so, no longer willing to simply be dismissed. In recent years and months, that has translated to blogs trumpeting women’s research, a pushback against all male panels, and a number of global women’s marches and science marches.

But how much of all of this has had a noticeable impact on STEM and female representation in research?

Well, according to Dr Marion Palmer, a member of the WITS executive and part of the WITS policy subcommittee, it’s kind of hard to tell in a quantifiable way. The research pipeline is long, starting with the choosing of Leaving Cert subjects and culminating at postdoc level. This makes it hard to tell if these recent initiatives have made any difference at all.

Where a difference is apparent, however, is in the conversation taking place within the STEM sector itself.

It’s about visibility

“One of the things that can happen, particularly in many male-dominated areas, is that you can be quite isolated as a PhD students, or a postdoc. I think they help provide a sense of community, and that you fit in. … Many of the PhD students don’t always feel they fit in and belong. They certainly don’t always look like other researchers,” said Palmer.

This is where movements such as #distractinglysexy make all the difference. They enable women to see that they’re not alone; that there are people who look like them – who are like them – in research.

So, in this regard, these efforts become less about representation than they are about visibility. And it doesn’t take much to change perceptions. Palmer cites Mary Robinson’s election as president, stating that it made the idea of a female president normative for an entire generation.

Palmer also referred to the Accenture-driven campaign, Women on Walls: “The tagline is: ‘You cannot be what you cannot see’, and I think, for research, that’s part of the issue. Because it isn’t a defined role, because it is in an amorphous career area, it’s very hard for women to see themselves there.”

Celebrating our scientific grandmothers

The movement is also about broadening the conversation around this visibility. For years, women’s contributions to science had been largely overlooked. For every Marie Skłowdowska Curie, there was a Rosalind Franklin (whose contributions to the discovery of DNA were overlooked for many years) or Jocelyn Bell Burnell (who was only latterly credited for the discovery of pulsars).

The tide is turning, though. WITS has been advocating for forgotten women for a long time. Palmer spoke of the late WITS founder, Mary Mulvihill, who “would always remind us to celebrate our scientific grandmothers” – but now the rest of the world is catching up.

The recent release of Hidden Figures put a spotlight on the women who have been, in many cases, erased from history. In the present day, sci-comm efforts, such as the Women Are Boring blog, are working to make sure it never happens again.

I think that’s what we want to say to our younger members and our student members: it’s OK, you’re welcome, you’re here. It’s fine. Keep going’

There is also a growing number of people acting as monitors, ensuring that the sector continues to move in a positive direction. Many of these keep a watchful eye on panel representation at conference events, where the lack of female faces has become somewhat of an in-joke – albeit not one that anyone is happy about having to make.

Attention in recent years has fallen squarely on all male panels, with a groundswell of support leading to numerous speakers and panellists refusing to take any place at an event unless more women are brought on board.

“We can fall into normal patterns and we don’t even see them. So, going to a tech or an engineering or a science conference and seeing a manel, we forget to say, ‘Oh, are there no women here?’” said Palmer.

“We’ve got to call people out. And this is where Academic Manel Watch is fantastic – and all the Manel Watches – because it isn’t acceptable anymore, and I think that’s fantastic.”

Owning our space

Again, whether or not all of this has any effect on the number of women entering research careers remains to be seen. What is already readily apparent, however, is the impact it is having on those already in the sector.

“I think what all of these movements are about is giving us permission to speak, and of taking [our space] and using it in an appropriate way,” said Palmer.

“The movements like #distractinglysexy and #ILookLikeAnEngineer are about saying, ‘I am an engineer, and I’m entitled to be here’. I think that’s what we want to say to our younger members and our student members: it’s OK, you’re welcome, you’re here. It’s fine. Keep going.”

The efforts to improve the gender balance in research isn’t just grassroots, of course. Initiatives such as the Athena SWAN Charter are specifically designed to encourage and recognise an institution’s commitment to advancing the careers of women in STEM.

It’s about challenging the status quo. It’s not that the status quo is wrong – though it is wrong – but it’s that we need to see it’s wrong and think about how to change it’

Originating in the UK, Athena SWAN has made its way to Ireland, and five of the seven Irish universities now hold the accreditation.

“I think it has helped [the cause of women in STEM]. It has brought the issues to the forefront. It has made the institutions look at institutional policy, and look at whether they’re gender friendly – and that’s gender friendly for men and women, not just for women – and at access. I think it has had a great impact in that respect,” said Palmer.

In an article published earlier this week in the Dublin Inquirer, it was highlighted that institutes of technology (ITs) are, on the surface at least, not holding their own. Although, Palmer points out that it’s not as clear-cut as that – at ITs, career structures skew towards teaching and away from research, but they often have above average gender equality at management level – and she acknowledges that the Athena SWAN Charter is not a fix-all.

In fact, the charter can offer a cop-out when it comes to government policy. It gives policymakers an excuse to say, ‘We’ve done enough – what more is there to do?’, when there’s a lot more to be done.

Though, perhaps, what’s most important in this context is that Athena SWAN is forcing people to look at the way things have always been done, and confront it: “It’s about challenging the status quo. It’s not that the status quo is wrong – though it is wrong – but it’s that we need to see it’s wrong and think about how to change it.”

Closing the gender gap

Of course, the gender imbalance in research doesn’t just affect those entering the industry for the first time, and placing too much focus on building the pipeline at college ignores a key demographic. Palmer highlights those slightly older researchers, who are squeezed at the exact moment they want to start families. The supports, she says, aren’t there.

In research, the onus is on the researchers themselves to, essentially, fund their own jobs. A constant cycle of grant applications can make it near impossible to take time out to start a family, or to raise a family. This affects everyone in the sector, but – more often than not – hits women hardest.

The solution to this can also be a solution to the broader problem of the gender gap in research. Many women, according to Palmer, leave careers in research entirely behind because they want a family and they want stability. Opening the possibility of a return later in life could make all the difference.

“What we need to understand – and what’s really becoming important – is that coming back into the STEM workforce at late-30s, early-40s, with your children growing up, that if we could support that and encourage that, that would be one way of [closing the gender gap],” said Palmer.

So what do we do next? In the face of a sector that is moving slowly towards true diversity – but still has numerous potential stumbling blocks along its way – what needs to happen to keep us on the right track?

“It is about maintaining the momentum. And I think if we don’t do that, we’ll slip back into the status quo.”

Kirsty Tobin
By Kirsty Tobin

Kirsty Tobin served as careers editor of Silicon Republic from 2015 up to August 2017. When she was younger, she had a dream where she started and won a fight with a T-Rex, so she’s pretty sure she kicked butt at this, too. Passions include eating all the cake, watching more TV than is healthy and sassy comebacks.

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