Open letter to the President and to the Vice-President of the European Geosciences Union

Vienna, April 9, 2013

Dear colleagues,

It has been a few years since I last attended the EGU General Assembly, which has always been an excellent forum for me to catch up on latest research results, to learn more about new research directions, and of course to meet colleagues. This year I am attending the EGU General Assembly again, mainly because the Earth Science Women’s Network had invited me to give a lecture.
Having lived in Sweden for the past 20 years, gender and gender biases are no longer very big issues, because we employ (at least at universities and in research) the principle of an even gender balance at all levels. 15 to 20 years ago, when fewer women had high academic positions, it was sometimes a bit difficult to find enough qualified women to fill the 50%, but given the focus on and awareness of the problem, concerted and successful efforts have been made.
However the situation seems to be slightly different in other European countries, where gender and gender biases still seem to be little discussed and/or are not addressed at all. Very little seems to have changed since I left Switzerland more than 20 years ago. And actually, whenever I raise this question for example as a committee member, the answers are bleak excuses and almost always the same: all efforts have been made, but there simply are not enough qualified women. Given the example from Sweden, I cannot buy this excuse anymore.
This year at EGU, I see so many talented young female PhD students and researchers, who are giving excellent talks, are presenting excellent posters and who are doing front research in geosciences. Given these successful young women, it is more than surprising to see the almost complete lack of women in this year’s EGU’s medal list. I thought that this could be a coincidence, so I made a quick check of how many medals had been awarded to male and female scientists over the past years (2004-2013).
What I found did really surprise me. The numbers below don’t need any further comments or statistical analyses. They clearly speak for themselves …. What they tell me is that there are only (or mainly) male scientists who are good enough to receive EGU’s medals! Would you agree with me? I sincerely hope that you do not agree with me!
The complete imbalance in respect to female and male scientists in my list below, made me go a step further and check how the gender balance of the different committees is. And no surprise here either – these committees are made up of male scientists with an occasional female scientist here and there. And of course this is not really surprising, because the researchers who had been awarded the medals make up the committees and as shown below – the medals have gone mainly to men! Unless this viscous circle is broken, nothing will change.

EGU, its executive board, its scientific commissions and its committees are in a position to change this. By doing so EGU could position itself at the forefront of European geosciences research. EGU could make the gender imbalance visible, could discuss it openly, could set up an action plan to resolve it and could actively work towards a change. Without awareness, without a concerted action plan and without a clear determination to change the situation, today’s talented young female researchers will also in the future not be selected as candidates for an EGU medal or award.

EGU has the possibility to make powerful changes and it has the ability to demonstrate that a change is possible.

Yours sincerely

Barbara Wohlfarth
Professor in Quaternary Geology and Member of the Swedish Royal Academy
Stockholm University

List of EGU medals 2004-2013
Open letter to the President and Vice-President of EGU

This entry was posted in Thoughts and Tales, Women and natural science and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to Open letter to the President and to the Vice-President of the European Geosciences Union

  1. Sofie L. says:

    Reblogged this on triassica and commented:
    Gender equality within the European Geosciences Union? Apparently not…

  2. Herdis Schopka says:

    I also wonder how many women geoscientists have a medal or award named after them. Yep, probably none 😦

  3. I agree. For a more detailed analysis, it would be worth to find out the gender ratio of all EGU members, and compare it with that of the list of awardees.

  4. Alex Flett says:

    As the father of three daughters I say “keep it up!” As an ancient old Pict (the original peoples of Celtic Scotland) the ways of the ancestors were matrilinear. Property and power descended through the female line.

  5. Johanna says:

    It seems that all EGU members can nominate candidates so if that stage is where the problem is it might not be so hard to change.

  6. Malin Kylander says:

    Incredible! Dark Ages! I knew it was bad but not this bad!

  7. anna neubeck says:

    Thank you, Barbara, for this very important comment.

  8. Anne-Mette says:

    As far as I remember, you actually have to nominate yourself for many of the medals!! Please check this before doing statistics – as this prove that only men feel confident enough about their research to put themselves forward, and have then nothing to do with discrimination!
    I, however, agree that outside of Scandinavia there appear to be a disequilibrium between male and female rewards (I did my PhD in Austria – and what a cultural clash on this point)!

  9. sannaweh says:

    Thank you Barbara, for this clear statement! I used to go to egu for 5 years, as phd and post doc. Now I left science. that has many different reasons, but I find myself here and there asking, whether I didnt try hard enough in a male dominated and male cultured scientific world (and I never use this as an excuse, mayne I was just not good enough, just here I want to be open abt this).
    Your words answer this with a “no” and they releases me a bit.
    But from the science and society perspective it is a very sad answer!!!
    Now I am living in the USA and I though i am not working in science here, i talk to some, read and obsereve it is a different sitiation here, too. Those excuses in Germany – where I am from – are unbelievable and I would like to understand them.
    All the best for your work and lots of respect for this letter! Susanna Werth

    • Dear Susanna,
      thanks very much for your kind letter. I am sorry to hear that you left research, but hope that you are happy with your current work. It is sad that many more young women leave science as compared to young men, but it is tough to keep going due to a number of different perspectives. Disentangling these is pretty complicated.
      Take care

  10. Herdís Schopka says:

    There was an article about the situation in AGU in EOS about a year ago: Very interesting, and the EGU can probably learn something from AGU’s experience.

  11. Matt Debolskiy says:

    Why would you expect 50/50 ratio in thi list? For what reason do you think this data is biased?

    • I am not quite sure what you mean.

      • Matt Debolskiy says:

        I mean why do you think that it will be 50/50 male/female ratio of winners in any list of awards or other competitions? Why do you think that table in your letter represents biased ratio?

      • What I foremost mean is that in an ideal society men and women should be represented equally on all levels.
        I also mean that there are now many good and talented young female researchers (just listen to these excellent talks) worth a medal. This makes me wonder why the number of young male researchers who are awarded with Outstanding Young Scientist, is still much higher as compared to female. 25 medals went to men, 9 medals to women, this is still not 50:50?!. I acknowledge that these numbers (25/9) indicate a positive shift, but we are not where we ought to be!

      • Matt Debolskiy says:

        I meant why do you presume that in “ideal” sociaety you will have 50/50 ratio on any level, in any competition? It’s not obvious for me. Please explain.

    • Johanna says:

      It is reasonable to expect that the numbers would roughly average out to the proportions found among the potential candidates. For the medals usually given after a long career it is indeed not unexpected that there should be more male recipients, although I find it hard to believe that the numbers shown here can be explained solely by that effect. This is further supported when looking at the “Outstanding young scientist award”. Assuming roughly equal distribution of men and females among the potential candidates the probability getting nine or less female awardees out of 36 in total due to purely random factors is less than 0.2%. Even if we assume that there would be only 40% females among the young scientists who are actually competitive the probability of this being a random effect is still less than 5%. Of course you could argue that this is due to different aptitude or personal choices of the potential candidates. However, there are many studies showing that men’s merits are regularly ranked higher than women’s, even when they are in fact identical (references below). I therefore believe it to be very wise to check for bias in the nominations or committees first, before looking for alternate explanations. References:

    • Herdís Schopka says:

      Matt, I’m not sure if you are a troll or if you are indeed so profoundly ignorant of the biases present against women in academia. There are a myriad studies showing clear gender bias in the sciences (not to mention society at large). At the risk of sounding offensive, I just want to point out that men are very often very ignorant of the privileges they enjoy in society. Maybe this will be food for thought.

    • Joa says:

      Because men and women have equal capacity for excelence!. Do we have to explain the obvious?

  12. anna neubeck says:

    Matt: Perhaps because men and women are equally represented in society in general?
    In Sweden, we have a trend of an increased number of female students in the university but the further up you go in the hierarchy, the lower the numbers of female representatives there are. This trend is awkward I think.

    • Matt Debolskiy says:
      According to this graphs and your statement in russia we should have more females than males on any stage of scientific career. But reality shows us that situations is different. Even Soviet gender policy (there were no bariers for women at all), didn’t changed female mentality in this country. They don’t want to make scientific career because of high compitition and low wages with big ammount of work. I think this is the reason (for my country i don’t know about Sweden).

      • Hi Matt,
        thanks for your interest in the subject. Let me ask you a few questions:
        who is doing the house work at home?
        who is cleaning, cooking, buying food?
        who is taking care of the children?
        who takes care of the parents?
        who is organizing birthday parties, X-mas gatherings?

        It is not a matter of mentality, it is a matter of who takes responsibility for family life and how much of one’s daily work load has to be focused on home and family – BECAUSE men don’t share half of this load. If women could let over 50% of this responsibility to their partners, then sure they would have 50% more time to engage in their science jobs.
        Change the male attitude and you will change women’s lives!

      • Herdís Schopka says:

        Barbara said all I wanted to say. For many women, a career in science (or any career for that matter) is simply not an option because of their 2nd (unpaid, unacknowledged) shift at home.

      • Joa says:

        I worked in Russia for years doing field work with Russian geoscientists and my experience is that gender bias was even larger than in my country (Spain). Women geoscientists did all the cooking and cleaning up in the field camps!!! their male colleges just sat and enjoyed their drinks. No space for compalints…

      • at least women geoscientists in Russia seem to enjoy a long life given the huge consumption of vodka by their male colleagues

  13. Thanks for your post! While I have not been to EGU, I did go to AGU last year. I could not help but notice that out of 60 AGU 2012 fellows, only 4 or 5 were women. This surprised me, because it was not at all a representation of the proportion of women I saw there. You bring up some good points on the gender imbalance, and it seems this is not just limited to EGU.

  14. Micol says:

    Thank you for the great letter (that I’ll share around at any levels in my institute). I think one important aspect of the problem is what is defined unconscious bias. We, well educated science people, do not like to hear about that, but we are biased even when we think we are not. Studies demonstrate that the same identical CV is evaluated differently if the candidate is a male or a female (I don’t have the reference here, but can find them for you later). We all, men and women, are more likely to propose (and to chose) a male candidate rather a female one, especially when the choice pertain a position with strong responsibilities. There is a number of reasons for that, and we can certainly discuss a long time on the subject. But I think that such a huge unbalance would not be possible without the (unconscious) cooperation of all the women of the scientific community. Perhaps we do not pay enough attention (it only happened to me once to nominate a fellow for an award), while award assignment is certainly a good leverage to foster gender balance.
    We should become aware that unconscious biases do exist and our choices could indeed be biased. A bias could be to think that the female scientist we know are not good enough to make it for an award. Another bias could be to think that our opinion is not relevant to the scientific community…
    While we wait for the large institutions to take the necessary steps to ensure the gender balance everywhere, we can act now, looking at ourselves and thinking who is going to be our next nominee for the next award.

    • Thank you for these comments. One important aspect is certainly that we all are biased to different degrees and in different ways – and I do not exclude myself here.
      The other aspect is that even women don’t often make the move to nominate other women – maybe they even don’t nominate men. Taking myself for example, I have not nominated anyone at any time for an award. But I have decided to change this, because just talking and criticising won’t lead to a change.

  15. Sara Mynott says:

    Barbara – thank you for bringing this issue to a wider audience. The EGU executives and the Chair of the Awards Committee have been informed and are discussing this issue. There is indeed a need for more women in science to be nominated for their excellent work. I hope this post encourages this.

    • Dear Sara,
      I am happy to hear that my letter has reached the EGU board and that the issue is discussed.
      If we all are conscious about the problem and if we are willing to make a change and actively work towards a change, then things will change

  16. Trevor Bond says:

    An interesting post Barbara. I attended the BSG conference last year and saw Angela Gurnell receive the David Linton award. I believe she is the first (or perhaps the second?) woman to receive this award in over 30 years, which supports your observation of the EGU awards and more generally that there are not enough women in science.

    It seems gender inequality is still an issue in many walks of life. I know we’re mostly scientists and so our focus should be upon gender inequality within our own profession but I think the lack of male nurses is another excellent example of gender persecution within our society, if only because of the day-to-day importance of healthcare (the World Health Organisation estimated that there was a shortage of 4.3 million healthcare workers globally in 2006 –

    Finding reliable statistics is always difficult but in most countries it seems the proportion of male nurses is somewhere between 5-10% of the total number. The ethnicity statistics are even more damning (which might be another point of discussion – how many of the scientists at EGU are from ethnic minorities, and does this reflect the ratio of ethnic minorities within our population as a whole).

    How we deal with these issues, I’m not sure. It seems within the EGU there is the mechanism for nominating candidates, and so part of the problem can be addressed here. Indeed in this respect the power is in the hands of the EGU members to make a change.

    Just to add finally, I think it is important that in discussions of inequality we try and remain objective. Your assertion in a previous comment that men do not share half the load at home is an inaccurate generalisation. Both of my parents worked when I was a kid but it was my father who did the cooking, the ironing and the cleaning. The first place people should demand equality is in their home.

    • Dear Trevor,
      Thanks for your comments. Gender imbalance is of course not only an issue in ‘typical male’ jobs, but also in ‘typical female’ jobs. And then of course we have a wide spread ethnicity bias, and so many other types of biases in our different societies.
      I am happy to hear that you grew up in a family where everything was shared equally between your mom and you dad. My daughter also grew up in an environment where both parents shared equally and all three of us are today successful in their respective working life.

  17. Sara Cousins says:

    Thanks Barbara! It is more or less the same within ecology. One small issue : we can also look around us here at Geohuset at Stockholm. Check the names of the lecture halls. That is what we show our students.

    • Hi Sara – I know and it has always bothered me, but the naming was made almost 20 years ago. Today it would be different. Maybe this is an issue to be brought up to the board of the Earth and Environmental Sciences section?

  18. Hej Barbara
    Very nicely written concerning a highly important subject. But the numbers in Sweden when it comes to prof. level are just as bad as everywhere else. Around 20% women. This despite having access to affordable daycare, paid parental leave, equal opportunity etc etc. The numbers should look better but they dont.
    Anyway. Important letter. Im really glad you wrote it.

    • Hej Helena,
      The focus of my letter was the near absence of women in EGU’s list of medals and not really the situation in Sweden. I have written about the latter already.
      I am always amazed that Swedish women complain that not much has changed here. It has changed considerably over the past 20 years and the situation is far better than in many other countries. This is also the reason why so many researchers from abroad take up positions here. During the past two years the number of female lecturers at my department has for example increased very much, because these researchers, coming from outside Sweden could outcompete other applicants. And I am sure that these women all will within a few years also be promoted to professor.
      Sweden offers excellent possibilities, but one also needs to grab them.

  19. Brenda Buck says:

    To find more published papers on gender bias, see this blog and the articles noted here and in the responses:

    Also if you want to find out about your own biases, I suggest you go to this page and take a few of their tests. The answers may surprise you!

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