Society's Problem with Parity

AcademiaNet Interview with Professor Polly Arnold

7.11.2017 |

This week we celebrate Marie Curie's 150th birthday. Since her time as a scientist, the situation for women in science has changed a lot. Nevertheless, only a minority of science professors today is female. AcademiaNet spoke with Professor Polly Arnold who is the producer of "A Chemical Imbalance" and a strong fighter for women in science.

Prof Polly Arnold
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(© University of Edinburgh)

Prof Polly Arnold

AcademiaNet: Professor Arnold, what was the situation for women in science 150 years ago when Marie Curie was born?

In the old days one had to be independently wealthy to do science. There was neither generally free or affordable education nor science jobs for women. Far from there being scholarships and financial aid for students that struggled. Science was for the wealthy only.

You also had to have access to a lab or build one yourself. A clever option that I read about in one instance was a woman who basically married a man for his telescope. Marie Curie was able to have her lab built for her. I particularly like that it was designed for a woman, and as such had benches that fitted her own height.

That sounds a bit extravagant.

Far from it. If you visit labs nowadays, you will recognize that all the benches tend to be a little bit too high for the average woman. Not so comfortable to work at. If I had the choice I would build my own lab and have my own benches. The money back then brought about some brilliant opportunities. But I'm still glad we got rid of the issue of money being necessary to succeed in science.

Something that clearly changed since the old days of Marie Curie. In terms of gender equality, how far have we come since then?

Not even close to as far as we should have. Income inequality, access to science in general, women in higher positions – there still are so many issues. Just look at the numbers of women in science. In some areas I genuinely even fear that we are in danger of going backwards, not forwards.

Going backwards?

Just look at politicians and heads of countries worldwide. Some seem to downright fear scientists. But they have the power to change the entire funding industry in science at a whim. They can change whether men and women can be educated in the same lecture theatre or not. Or if certain people are eligible for funding, or if a call for competitive funding for a large, multi-person project is suddenly made available on a short timescale. These things can overturn decades of hard work by instantly excluding people from minorities, or those who don’t have a traditional network already built. These dangerous power systems that are building up around the world at the moment still need sorting out before all of the minorities – by the way, women are a minority in science, too – have equal opportunities.

When did you become interested in the topic "women in science"?

From the very beginning of my academic career. I tried to organise events on International Women's Day and similar occasions. But it wasn't until I was sent to a specific course that I recognised that I had to do something specific: My university had looked at the numbers of female academics in its higher ranks. They realized that women were winning international prizes and being regarded as very successful internationally. But they weren't getting promoted. So, all of us women had to go on this course to tackle the problem. It was then that I realized what they were basically doing: They were trying to convert us women into men rather than addressing the issue itself. That moment I decided I had to do something about it.

And what did you do?

I first did what every scientist would do (laughs): I looked at the data. People have documented the topic for twenty/thirty odd years now, shared their stories on surviving in a male dominated field, etc. Straight from the beginning they said at the current rate of change it will take 70 years until we reach parity. Since then every report has continued to say 70 years by extrapolation – always. Strange, isn't it?
 So, I started to have a closer look on the evidence we already have and what interventions might be needed to make a real change. Then, in 2012 a key piece of research on the effects of societally induced unconscious bias was published by Yale University researchers. They had looked at the inbuilt bias people have when employing scientists and found that everyone favoured the male applicant, even when the CVs they got only varied in the name of the person on the CV.

These results came out when I had started working in a department that for some reason had a very different atmosphere to nearly all the other places I had seen before. The whole attitude people showed was different: It was better, much better. I tried to unpick what it was and if it was something we could make more scientific and probably convert into advise for others. So I applied for the Rosalind Franklin Award and made the project "A Chemical Imbalance", a short movie on women in STEM.

What is this movie about?

It is meant as a wake-up call, a call for action, to everyone out there to look closer at the situation of minorities in science. We interviewed present and past colleagues of mine on how things are when they are good for women and when they are bad.

What feedback did you get on the clip?

Mainly really great feedback. I had a few senior male mangers from around the world contacting me and outing themselves as feminists – they hadn't realized that before. They felt woken up by our call to action. A lot of people in other countries also told me they used it to initiate a discussion in their departments about what needs to change. People with disabilities phoned me up and asked how they can get the award I got or an equivalent to make the same wake-up call for people to consider disability issues. That made me very happy.

You said "Call for Action". What kind of action could be taken to improve the situation of women in science?

First of all, we would need to change society. Get rid of the societal bias that we all have in us. Encourage young women and minorities to have more self-confidence, show them that there are women in higher positions that they can look up to and follow as role models. Give women self-confidence and courage to keep going and try things, apply for things when they are only 80% ready, go out and speak for themselves is also hugely important. Tell young people not to be afraid of failure. It is a part of working life and will help you get further. You just need to keep going not give up at the first set-back.

What is being done already? What works well?

There are some great initiatives working at all levels. In Scotland we have various charities going to schools, showing pupils all the different role models there are and teaching them how successful people look like them. It's the basic things that help making a difference: You don't have to look like old Einstein to be a fantastic scientist.

Another successful intervention is to work with policy makers. Make sure that texts are worded right so that people don't automatically feel excluded when they read job descriptions, funding guidelines, etc. People should never think "Well, I'm not a genius. I can't apply there."
But we also need to work with the students at school and universities, keep on pushing and championing them. Pick them up where they are and help them go on. Celebrate their successes with them!

This only tackles the problem in the early stages. But the numbers of women in higher positions still stagnate. One idea to change that is to introduce quotas. Good idea or bad idea?

We don't always have the numbers of women willing to apply to achieve that, yet. In some areas we do but in many areas, such as committee membership, we would overburden the same few people with the responsibility. It can be a benefit when it allows younger people to get pushed into positions where they can see how higher-up level structures work. It can allow them to build up a network, grow more self-confident and go on further. But if they aren't far enough up the ladder to benefit from sitting on that committee yet and being pushed up the ladder too early just to make numbers, it's a huge strain on their time and no benefit to anyone. It still needs to be carefully considered to be effective, but in principle I say, yes I am in favour of quotas.

Any ideas for alternatives?

Just having some women on your panel will not make your panel behave better if everyone has the same bias. It's not the men's fault, it's everyone's fault. We need to make enough men feminists to reach parity. Then everybody will think appropriately and diversity will increase.

To help women now and practically, I set up a network - the "Sci Sisters" – a scientific sisterhood for senior women working in STEM in Scotland. It spans across academia and industry and government and links all the women together, regardless of their work place. I thought it was needed right now because many women felt isolated out there at i.e. the power plants or smaller companies. Now they have a chance to discuss generic concerns such as management issues with peers and people in similar positions, without too much effort.

And to round it up in a hand full of sentences, what advise would you give women in science, especially young women starting a career?

Have more self-confidence. Don't be afraid to fail. Seek advise. Seek mentoring. Seek championing.

Questions were asked by Sonja Klein for AcademiaNet

  (© AcademiaNet)

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