Do men still express deliberate prejudice against women? No, most men do support women equally, if not more at times than the women especially in the early career days. This demonstrates an improvement for more women leaders and role models to stand out from the crowd. Universities are trying to promote awareness on diversity and equality with emphasis on women but more needs to be done (The Loudest Duck is a good read on how to diversify the workforce).
Nevertheless, insidious sexism does exist. So how can we create the foundation for progression of women from the very first levels to the higher up? Here are several suggestions to bring about a cultural change sooner than later.
Despite many cultural advances, academic leadership is still a ‘boys club’! This is reflected by professors, deans, provosts, and university presidential positions, where men still dominate. There are many suggestions for the root cause of this – passive (or active) exclusion, the sexism shadow, family commitments, or a combination of all of these factors can prevent women from entering the club. From personal experience, I have watched many women colleagues hesitate to engage in male-dominated circles. How can we enact cultural change if we women choose not to engage? It can be hard to break into and you may be called ‘bossy’ (or worse) if you choose to engage in the circles. However, you need to see it as a passing phase as the bigger goal is to learn the dynamics of the unknown world, to learn and appreciate the different skill sets that the opposite sexes bring to the field and how this diversification can aid career progression. To move forward we need to block out the background noises! Developing a thick skin will help you self-evaluate your own career, and ignore naysayers and detractors.
Publish-or-perish has been the road to academic success for decades. But communicating scientific data is only one aspect of a researcher’s job. Scientists are constantly training, teaching, brainstorming, editing, and reviewing with collaborators, in addition to generating their own research. Strategies should be put into effect where researchers are not considered as dispensable lab robots who perform experiments and publish but rather as professionals who perform experiments as one aspect of their job. These schemes should become an integral part of the training experience rather than something that you can opt to do when you have a ‘30 minute incubation period’ between experiments. Success should be based on not just how well you depict your scientific findings but on your impact on a colleague’s career progression.
Ask for help!
Deciding when to have a family and how to balance family with one’s career are just a few of the dilemmas of women in STEM. Is there a solution? We can’t stop having children just so that we can progress at work! A female professor and mentor once said to me, ‘You don’t have to be a superwoman…ask for help!’ She is right, in that we need to accept help when starting a family while continuing a career in STEM. One example is asking friends or colleagues for a hand when you need to do some catchup reading, grant writing, or attending lab meetings while you are still on your maternity leave. Ideally, employers will provide organizations to support women in STEM on maternity leave or raising a family. If adequate support becomes available, more women will utilize it as they transition into motherhood yet continue with the pace of their STEM career. Until the institutional infrastructure is in place, asking for help when needed will provide opportunities to keep up with work-related duties.
Choose your personal road to happiness
Not every woman wants to climb the Himalayas! Societal pressure to balance a high-powered career and family can lead to dissatisfaction and resentment towards woman who prioritize career over family or vice versa. Societal expectations allow for some deviations (such as women as family breadwinner, women CEOs, and childless couples), but these are still considered deviations from the norm. Before setting a goal, ask yourself if the journey will make you happy. For some women, being a mother brings as much joy and happiness as being a leader in STEM. Others would like to have a bit of both while still others would just like to choose one over the other. The importance is deciding what you wish to prioritize, rather than what is socially acceptable!
Finally, “Nothing any good isn’t hard”, as F. Scott Fitzgerald told his daughter when she entered high school. It is a hard journey, but we can bring about the much-needed change by taking these steps and engaging in opportunities that can help us succeed. The more we avoid the male-dominated circles, the later this change will take place. Afterall, it is a mutual learning experience, they too need to understand our work and thinking style. So for all the women in STEM, we still have a lot to do… so don’t step back and start engaging from Today!
Sadaf Atarod is a green scientist who wants everyone to discover the fascinating world of science! She is currently based at Newcastle University and is constantly tweeting @micrornaologist about the latest scientific discoveries!