Written by Dr Danielle Gilroy
(Senior Scientist & Terrestrial Research Office for Operation Wallacea)
I first became aware of a gender skew in academia during my Biology undergraduate degree. Among my course-mates it was clear that there were more female undergraduate students, but when it came to the University staff the skew was reversed. At the University of Sheffield, I was fortunate enough to meet a few strong female scientist role-models to look up to; but I knew this wasn’t the case for many friends studying the same or similar degrees elsewhere. When I started my PhD at the University of East Anglia, I was again fortunate enough to meet a few ‘super-women’ in my department who somehow managed to juggle top academics, lecturers, supervisors, mothers and have some sort of social life (I never did find out their secret on how to do it!). It was from here that I started to get more serious about sexism in science and I attended conferences and debates on the issue. I started jotting down notes at every seminar, departmental talk and conferences I attended: the number of male and female speakers, those who asked questions and those who led sessions. I found a strong skew towards men in all areas and soon concluded that women became more of a minority the higher up the academic ladder you go. But why? It would be impossible to identify the causative factors since there is just too much individual variation to consider. No single woman is the same. One could look towards factors like having children, maternity leave and career breaks. One could question whether women lack the same levels of confidence or competitiveness, or are simply too emotional in comparison to men and this can be considered a bad thing. Either way, you cannot attribute any of these factors to an entire gender. We are too different as individuals and this is why Soapbox Science and many other like-minded organisations, groups and events are working to bring science to the people and to override the stigma that men are better-suited for careers in science.
At Operation Wallacea, my role is to oversee terrestrial research across all forest sites to ensure the projects are solid, the data is comparable and that is being used effectively i.e. to lever funds to best establish conservation management in areas of declining and vulnerable biodiversity. We operate through a student tuition-fee funded model where students pay to come out on tropical conservation research expeditions to be trained in specialist areas and assist with research, and they can also carry out the fieldwork component of their degree research projects. If we look at our dissertation students booked on for the 2017 season (a mixture of third year undergraduates and Masters students), 58.6% are women and the percentage is even higher for research assistants at 68.3%. If we examine the statistics among our staff, it initially looks great with 50.7% of staff contracted so far for 2017 being women. However, when we focus on our more senior academics (staff concerned solely with scientific research) we find that in fact only 28.3% are women. When broken down into different research themes, the pattern can be seen across all areas (Fig 1). Our Senior Scientists overseeing specific projects shows further decline with only 11.1% of scientists being women (Fig 2). It does appear that the further you progress along the career ladder, the more bottlenecked it becomes for women. Operation Wallacea are very proud of having funded and supported 70 PhDs to date, so how does it look for our budding doctors? Promising! 46.7% of our past PhD students were women and 44.8% for our current PhD students. The next step is to balance the skew-out when it comes to publishing.
If you take one of our most fruitful sites for publications such as Cusuco National Park in Honduras and examine the ratio of men and women who are the leading author on those papers; it is heavily-dominated by men (Fig 3). Papers are the currency of science and it appears that [for whatever reason(s)] women are not getting first-author papers out to the same measure. Yet, over time we are seeing an increase in the numbers of papers where the first authors are indeed women and this could be reflective of changing times. I am optimistic that this pattern will continue as we continue to raise awareness of gender inequality and eliminate gender bias in the science workplace.