In UK universities there are far fewer women in senior posts than men – particularly at professor level. Putting aside teaching, to reach this status, an academic typically needs to have completed a considerable amount of research. Research takes time, and if people want to succeed in academia, they have to apply for funding. This is where one key difference lies.
Women receive less funding than men, and they also apply for smaller grants than their male counterparts. Our study investigated the amount of research funding awarded to male and female study leads across over 6,000 studies related to infectious disease research in UK institutions. Around 75-80% of the funding was awarded to male principal investigators – a huge difference. In addition to the differences in total sums of money, there are also clear differences in the size of the grants secured.
It’s a Catch-22
So what’s the barrier to women getting funding? It’s unlikely to be widespread gender bias from the funders themselves. One of the most famous papers that did highlight clear biases in this area was a 1997 article published in Nature which pulled no punches in highlighting the problem in the peer review process of the Swedish Medical Research Council.
But this analysis is now 20 years old and does seem to be an outlier in an increasing pool of evidence. Most other analyses suggest there is no observable gender bias on the part of the research funders. For example, evidence reported by the Foundation for Science and Technology suggested there is no significant difference in the proportions of successful grant applications led by male and female researchers from the major UK funders, such as the Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council.
So why are women getting less by way of grant amounts? With seniority comes big bucks. The more senior the person applying, the bigger the grant they are likely to be requesting. But with fewer senior women out there to apply for something big, it’s a Catch-22.
There are initiatives within, and involving, universities that may help. The Athena Swan programme encourages institutions to consider inequalities and disadvantaged groups, and often focuses on the issues surrounding women in science. There is some evidence to suggest it is having a positive effect. The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), one of the major UK funders, now insists that university departments and faculties must have at least a silver award from Athena Swan to be eligible to apply for their funding streams. Recipients of an Athena award have demonstrated through work practices and workplace philosophy their commitment to gender equality and supporting women in STEM careers.
There is also an interesting clause in the guidance of the NIHR autumn 2017 call for research professorships (a prestigious and significant award in the career of any aspiring health researcher). Institutions can put forward a maximum of two candidates, and at least one of the two candidates must be female.
I am not aware of other major research funders yet taking a similar approach (though they may do). It would be interesting to hear their views. As universities are increasingly strapped for cash, research income is important, so no doubt many faculties would be happy to jump through hoops to be eligible for all funding streams from the big players.
Still a man’s world?
Funding applications aside, there are good reasons for female academics to be disheartened about their chances of competing on a level playing field. A 2012 US-based study revealed how identical CVs with a male name at the top were favoured over those with a female name. Then there is the evidence that female lecturers are rated lower than their male counterparts by students, without there being any obvious difference in the standard of their teaching. It takes an extra level of tenacity and determination for a woman to make it to the top in a world that is naturally skewed towards men.
There are many additional factors that come into play as to why there are clear differences between the careers of men and women in an academic environment. Digital Science’s new report, Championing The Success of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths, and Medicine (STEM), explores many of these issues from a range of perspectives, as well as considering other areas where inequality is a problem. It also examines potential ways forward, including the use of mentors, feedback from the academic community and cultural changes that ensure there are more women into senior roles.
But what is very evident is that higher education institutions can prioritise the promotion of equality and still be successful in keeping their heads above water during the ongoing storm of funding cuts, Brexit and general political disdain towards experts.
This laughable 2012 video by the European Commission to encourage teenage girls to take an interest in science underscores the kind of problems that exist in the way women are perceived in terms of science. There was some furious backpedalling by its creators soon after its release, but it is shocking to think it got approved in the first place. But at least its desperately hackneyed approach lays bare some of the sexist, outdated and demeaning attitudes that women have to endure in male-dominated environments.
Women’s role in science has been hotly debated and discussed in recent decades. Policy-oriented and scholarly studies have explored a range of topics on the issue. From girls’ participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); to how women are represented and perform in STEM occupations and women’s access to technologies – it’s all been studied.
But only one study has examined women’s representation and participation in national science academies. This silence is ironic. These academies honour scientific excellence and synthesise scientific findings to support evidence-based policymaking. This means they are well placed to contribute towards strengthening their countries’ national innovation systems. They can advocate to get more girls and women participating in STEM, and advise on system-wide application of the gender lens in research and innovation.
So one of the first steps, surely, would be for academies to address their own gender gaps. But there’s a data problem. Academies simply don’t know how they’re doing when it comes to the representation of women compared to their counterparts within the science-policy environment. So they’re unable to monitor their progress.
That’s why the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) and the InterAmerican Network of Academies of Sciences embarked on a study to collect baseline data about women’s representation in the membership and governance structures of national science academies. We chose academies affiliated with the academy international umbrella body, the InterAcademy Partnership. It represents more than 110 national academies of science in both the global North and South.
A common message emerged from our research: with one or two notable exceptions, women are massively underrepresented in national science academies compared to their male peers.
Women in the minority
The information was gathered through two separate but related online surveys during 2014 and 2015.
The InterAmerican Network of Academies of Sciences surveyed the partnership’s 19 national science academies in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean. The South African academy surveyed 84 academies in the other world regions: Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, South Asia, South East Asia and the Pacific, Western and Northern Europe, South Eastern Europe and Central and Eastern Europe.
There was a response rate of 63%: 65 of the InterAcademy Partnership’s 103 national academics provided us with data. A full table of the data is available in this article published in the South African Journal of Science.
The Cuban Academy of Sciences (27%) and the Caribbean Academy of Sciences (26%) had the highest representation of women in their membership. A “member” was taken to mean any person elected into the academy. The national science academies of Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Uruguay, Honduras and Canada also featured on the list of the top 10 academies with the largest shares of women members – between 16% and 23%.
In Africa, meanwhile, women comprise on average 10% of academy members. Academy of Science of South Africa is the only academy on the continent that ranks among the top five organisations for women membership (24%). The Uganda National Academy of Sciences was second in Africa (13%), followed by the academies of Ghana and Cameroon (both 11%).
The average share of women members, across all 63 national science academies that responded, is 12%.
More women in governance
Interestingly, women fared better when it came to national science academies’ governing bodies. Here the average was 20%. In Africa, the Academy of Science of South Africa recorded the largest share of women in academy governance (31%).
It’s not clear why and at this stage we can only speculate about possible reasons. For instance, there could be a general recognition among academies that women need greater representation. A logical first step would be to include those already elected into the academy in the governing body. An equally plausible hypothesis is that women volunteer their time more readily.
The Academy of Science of South Africa arm of the survey also asked whether academies had either a committee to address gender or diversity issues, or at least someone to advise on them. The answer was “no” from 61% of academies. A third – typically academies with a larger share of women in their membership, specifically in North and Latin America – had a dedicated committee. The remaining 6% of academies relied on individuals’ input and guidance.
We would have liked to obtain more data. But we believe the number and spread of participating academies provide a good base for future surveys. Based on the data, we propose several recommendations for the InterAcademy Partnership and its affiliated academies.
Recommendations and unanswered questions
First, member academies should annually collect, analyse and report gender-disaggregated data. This should then be published in the partnership’s annual report. The document can then be used to discuss the gender dimensions of its membership activities. It’s also important for member academies to establish permanent organisational structures related to gender. These can provide strategic direction and implement the academy’s gender mainstreaming activities.
Several aspects of women’s representation in science weren’t explored in this study. How much of a role does unconscious bias play in academies’ election or selection as members? Are the criteria for membership limiting women’s chances? What about socio-cultural aspects? Many cultures have male and female work spheres, confine girls to less valued “women’s work” and underestimate women’s intellectual and technological capacities.
This bias can be replicated in the processes of nomination, evaluation and selection of women and men, for example, for research grants, fellowships, prizes, key aspects that contribute to building the scientific excellence that is associated with honorific recognition of an individual by an academy of science.
These are important questions and issues. Further qualitative research will help to engage the unsettling narrative which emerged from the data in our study.
*Authors’ note: We would like to acknowledge the work of the Organisation for Women in Science for the Developing World, one of our partners on this project._
We faced abuse for asking people to kill wasps for science – here’s why it was worthwhile
When we launched a citizen science project earlier this year, we didn’t expect to get in so much trouble.
We wanted to public to help us find out more about social wasps (the kind that bother us at picnics and BBQs) and so we launched the Big Wasp Survey. Social wasps are essential pest-controllers and pollinators, but some species are declining while others are expanding their populations and range. Without basic data on the abundance and distribution of these wasps, we can’t conserve (or control) them.
Yet we know relatively little about social wasps in Britain. So we asked the public to set out beer-filled traps for a short period of time when mostly old and soon-to-die worker wasps would be active. This approach would provide essential data that we need to manage social wasp populations. But beer traps kill wasps, and that seemed to upset a lot of people.
Asking the public to kill wasps in the name of science led to high–profile national media condemnation. But our negative experiences were relatively mild – some scientists studying invertebrates have been subjected to torrents of social media abuse for “killing in the name of science”.
It seems our study played into an old stereotype of an entomologist as a Victorian-style net-wielding naturalist, capturing and killing six-legged victims that are then pinned and banished to dusty drawers. More a lethal stamp-collector than a scientist.
The reality is modern entomologists are involved in science that underpins pressing societal and environmental issues including medicine, genetics, ecology and climate change. Unfortunately, this research still relies on killing insects, a practice accepted as a necessary evil by scientists but easily criticised by others, as we found.
There are three main reasons why entomologists sometimes have to kill what they study. First, many insects can only be identified by microscopic examination, for example by the shape of their genitalia. A photograph simply isn’t enough for this. We need a dead specimen.
Second, we often need a lethal approach to catching insects, using techniques such as pan traps (open pans of water) or pitfall traps (sunken traps filled with fluid to kill and preserve insects that fall in). Otherwise it’s much too difficult to catch them.
Finally, scientists have learnt a great deal about some important and fundamental aspects of biology and medicine by killing insects. Data on the effects of agriculture, habitat change, the effects of pollution, predator-prey dynamics, and the ecological effects of climate change come directly from studies that leave dead insects in their wake.
The field of genetics would also be nowhere without the fruit fly, which have died in their billions to provide DNA samples in our quest to unravel the fundamental mechanisms of life. Likewise, the American cockroach, the Indian cricket and the mosquito have all died to develop our understanding of nervous systems, ageing, development and disease.
In the case of the Big Wasp Survey, relying on untrained citizen scientists to observe wasps without killing them wasn’t an option. We needed a standard method that everyone could follow and it isn’t possible to reliably observe and count individuals without trapping them. Although there are only eight common species of social wasp in the UK, it’s surprisingly difficult to identify them from living specimens. Without proper wasp identification, our study would be scientifically obsolete.
If we can collect a colony’s worth of wasps we can generate fundamental science to help manage and conserve these important insects. But, again, this would be completely impossible without the actual (dead) specimens for us to accurately identify and use to find out which species are where. We also couldn’t develop any additional research, such as looking at how wasp colour varies in different places, which might reflect pollution levels.
Reduce, refine, replace
Biological research on vertebrate animals (such as fish, mammals and birds) is underpinned by the environmental principle of the Three Rs (reduce, refine, replace). Insect scientists also adopt this principle where they can.
For example, you can use statistical maths to work out the minimum number of individuals (or samples) required to test a particular theory. Improved photography can let us identify some insects such as butterflies without killing them. We can even now use non-lethal methods to take minute quantities of DNA from some insects, allowing us to identify them without killing them.
Every day, billions of insects die splattered on vehicles, poisoned by insecticides or casually swatted for no scientific benefit. In contrast, the tiny number killed by entomologists help us to understand, among many other things, genetics, disease and ecology. The Big Wasp Survey has already collected data from several thousand locations across the UK, engaged millions of people with the value of social wasps and sparked off a number of potential new scientific collaborations with ecologists across Europe.
Entomologists have long been troubled by the need to kill insects, and are seeking ways to reduce, refine and replace fatal sampling and identification methods. In the meantime, and in the face of censure and condemnation from those that do not understand the science, entomologists will have to continue to kill insects to make meaningful scientific advances.
Article in MIT Technology Review: