Raise your consciousness!

Our Department celebrated its 50 year anniversary yesterday with good food, very nice lectures and the unveiling of a portrait gallery showing all the former professors, who had once populated the place since the late 1800s. Beside these seriously looking men in dark suites is the framed sketch of a tree. This tree has very few branches in the lower part, but more and more towards the top, illustrating how our department has grown and expanded over the past years. This is striking, but even more striking is the fact, that the first female geology professor (that’s me) does not appear until the year 2007 and is then swiftly followed by two more.

The tree, or better my position on the branch of this tree, reminded me of numerous unpleasant past occasions of being the only woman among men, and especially one occasion came to my mind, when my former geology professor at the University of Bern some time in the late 1970ies told me that geology is definitely NOT a subject for women. I’d better stop, he suggested and find something more suitable.

Yes, the situation has changed, yes there are many more women in geology, yes we have the 50/50 principle for committees, and yes we do not have this type of mobbing anymore. But, we still have the subtle way of letting women know that they are not good enough and that they need to be super excellent to get a research grant or a research position. Why otherwise are there so few female keynote speakers invited to conferences or why are so few or no women lecturing at summer schools?

Cinthia de Wit, the dean of the section of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Stockholm University has recently written an interesting contribution in the web-based journal Curie, which is issued by the Swedish Research Council. Cindy’s debate paper, which is unfortunately only in Swedish, tries to find an answer to why we loose women in academia. 58% of our undergraduate students and 49% of our PhD students are female, but only 23% of the professors are women. Where and why do we loose all these highly educated women and what can each of us do to circumvent this complete waste of resources?

A study published in PNAS last year (see also reference below) showed that both men and women rated the application with a male name higher, than the identical application with a female name. Both male and female faculty rated the male applicant as more competent than the identical female applicant, and even suggested a higher starting salary. This means that the bias towards women sits in both men and women!

Successful research funding is an important part of academia and without research money it is almost impossible to gather the necessary academic credits that are needed for promotion or for applying to a permanent position. Interestingly, studies in Sweden have shown, as Cindy writes, that male researchers were more successful with obtaining research grants, as compared to female researchers. Were these men really so much better scientifically or, did the perception of the male and female reviewers influence their judgement?

What is it in our (male and female) judgement that makes us believe that men are a priori better scientists? How conditioned and possible brain-washed are we actually? How influenced are our judgements by our upbringing, by our society and by the media? Pretty much I guess.

There is unfortunately no easy way out. But we have a brain and we can and should use it. We can and must become aware of the problem and we need to address it. We can and must become much more conscious, and we must question ourselves, and our actions continuously. Without doing so, the situation will not change very much, and we will still sit there in twenty years or so and will ask ourselves “where have all the women gone”?

Moss-Racusin et al. 2012. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favour male students. PNAS 109, 16474-16479.

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

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