Gender Balance is Everybody's Responsibility

I (Olaf Wiest, OW) was invited to contribute a blog post to the International Women’s Day on the Nature Research Chemistry Community and am very happy to do so because I firmly believe in the importance of “Balance for Better” . However, I am a white male with a different experience and thus turned to Taylor Quinn (TQ). She is a fourth-year graduate student in the group who has through a lot about this, for help.

OW:  The research enterprise in the United States, including my own group, has over the last decades benefited tremendously from the talents and hard work of coworkers from a wide range of scientific, ethnic, and personal backgrounds. Their different viewpoints enrich the discussions, foster creativity and improve social skills.

One of the most important aspects of this diversity is the gender balance in science. Over the last 20 years, my own group was on average close to what I see as the ideal equal balance, but it is clear that this does not (yet) translate to chemistry as a whole, in both industry and academia. Thinking about the many contributions the female group members made, I cannot help wondering what the field of chemistry is missing out on.

Rather than rehash the extensive and public discussion of the origins and possible remedies for this imbalance, the question for me is more direct: What are the day-to-day problems the female coworkers in the group face and what can I as an advisor do about them? It is obvious that I will not be able to solve all problems, but clearly the first step is to educate myself about these question and accept that each of us has a personal responsibility to make it happen.


TQ: The most intuitive outcome of reducing this disparity is students and early career scientists having role models and mentors around them who look like them. Upon joining the department, it was mildly concerning that there weren’t any female faculty members in my field that I could have regular scientific discussions with, but I didn’t immediately see the problems this creates. It was later that I realized that I wasn’t seeing successful women in my field (or tangential fields) on a regular basis and how that influences my work. In my third year, Dr. Vy Dong was invited to give a lecture in our department, and afterwards it was truly the first time I had the thought that I might actually be able to DO research. Dealing with the disparities women face to advance in science (on top of the actual work) seems insurmountably exhausting, but watching a 50-minute lecture by a stellar chemist who looks a little more like me made the prospect more tangible. Now, my advisor is very supportive of my career goals, but this isn’t something he could do himself. He can (and does) suggest small conferences to me that give a lot of face time with more people in my field, and that helps with networking.

I can’t talk enough about how important Twitter has been for connecting to scientists outside my university that represent the broader community of scientists, including the small percentage of women in science that are otherwise few and far between. Seeing their success and struggles make your own goals more valid and real. You are not limited to people in academia, career level, or research area. There is a whole scientific community in Twitterverse to engage with and you can be as passive as you want (though my recommendation is the more active the better). It is something I suggest to many graduate students, but particularly white women and minorities, as they are less likely to see that representation in their immediate science bubble. 

But that’s not even addressing the very serious problem that women face. It didn’t take long for me to see how students can be afraid to report problematic coworkers for fear of retaliation or being branded as “the one who rocked the boat”. As a result, many students do not choose to take action. While one would like to believe that this is not happening in a department, there’s a good chance it is. While everybody agrees on this, the slog at which change occurs in academia can be excruciatingly slow. Having a diverse faculty helps improve the safety, full education and mentorship of the female students, post-docs, and faculty. Actively hire women, and not just white ones, and support those women so they want to stay.


OW: While change occurs (too) slowly, there are a number of specific steps that each of us, students and mentors, need to take to accelerate it. Increasing the diversity among the faculty is a big part of it. Having served on many recruitment committees, I know that this is not only hard but also slow because the gender balance in the applicant pool is already quite uneven. While I am optimistic that eventually, we will reach a “tipping point” where female students will see a truly balanced faculty and thus are more likely to pursue a career in research themselves, it is in the meantime important to recognize the personal responsibility of each student and mentor in coming forward and report if there is a problem. This requires mentors to earn the trust of their students in order for them to feel comfortable discussing matters of gender-based discrimination or harassment, which leads to safer pathways of reporting for those students. While there are (unfortunately legitimate) concerns about retaliation, there is also a hidden cost of not coming forward in slowing down progress to achieve the needed gender balance. It requires significant effort for all involved, but I am convinced that it is the right thing to do and will in the long run improve the health of the scientific enterprise. 

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Go to the profile of Ruth Milne
about 4 years ago

Thanks for working together on this!