Sunday, 13 October 2013

Not a piece of cake - Women in academia

I have recently become part of a women's science network for which I sit on the committee. Before getting involved in it, I have never really thought or been aware of the gender issues in academia. Of course, I have noticed that there are (a lot) more male academics than female ones, but I didn't have enough insight to know if this is the case in all faculties and schools or just in STEM sciences. Through my involvement in this network, however, it has become obvious to me just how small the ratio of women to men often is. Besides the smaller numbers of women scientists, I am even more surprised to learn that gender bias or even sexist behaviour is not unheard of in academic settings. Three issues have stood out for me the most:

The gender gap in citations and academic networks. This article examines this issue and it's possible sources quite thoroughly. I find it particularly interesting that out of three panels attended by the author, two were organised and composed exclusively by white males and one was organised by a woman and composed equally of both genders. This shows quite strikingly how powerful gender bias in academic networks really is (often unintentionally). I have also noticed that this isn't obvious to everybody. I have since asked my supervisors whether they think I should make an effort to address the gender citation gap in my own writing and, after some explanation of the problem, I am pleased to say they wholeheartedly encouraged me to do so.

Family needs and work requirements, or how many papers is a baby worth? The issue here is that female academics proportionally take out more time for family-related reasons (e.g. maternity leave, child-related sick leave) than male ones and this puts them at a disadvantage to achieve a similar number of publications as their male colleagues in their field relative to their career years. This article shines light on many of the issues that female academics are facing and is particularly close to my heart as I am hoping to start a family myself in the next 5 years while also pursueing a career as an academic. I have often heard from female colleagues how difficult it is to juggle kids and work, how it is often impossible to work long hours like many of their male counter-parts, under how much pressure they are to publish papers and how they are often overlooked for promotions for these very reasons. I am hopeful that this situation is improving as more and more work is done to ensure equal opportunities in academia and take into account potential differences in needs of both genders.

3 Outright disrespectful and misogynist behaviour. I think people need to make up their own mind about this case of a female scientist being called "whore" for her unwillingness to provide content for another blog for free (see also here), but I do believe that a male scientist in this same situation would not have been so crudely insulted by another male. Or as one of the blog's commenters put it:

"Meanwhile a man would be considered an altruistic philanthropist or savvy entreprenuer for the same actions."
I have heard from other colleagues that women are more likely to keep occurences like the above quiet and consider them part of the struggles of having a successful career, which begs the question how big a role gender bias and sexism really plays. I in no way believe that sexism only happens in academia - I have seen too many, and been subjected to, such instances in various other industries myself. But I believe in gender equality and hope that society is on it's way there, both professionally as in private life, that this too is a phase which will pass. Education and awareness definitely play an important role here. So does being more vocal if you're ever being treated unfairly or disrespectful at work because of your gender. I for one want to be noisy about it in the future. Because what is unknown cannot be addressed.

Friday, 8 February 2013

A lot of or enough?

Recently, I had a discussion with an acquaintance of mine who is currently finishing his PhD before returning to his home country of Tanzania. I asked him about his plans when he returns. He said that he wants to get a job and earn a lot of money. He explained that he would need a lot of money to help his local community and generally make sure that his family, friends and surroundings are okay and he can support them when needed. 

I found this admirable (still do). Then we started a discussion about a lot of money and enough money. I argued that whenever you strive for a lot, there is no limit to it and you could end up focusing all your energy on the money earning and not on what you intended to use it for. If, however, you concentrate on earning enough money to achieve your goal, your efforts could be a lot more focused and you won't risk losing track of your underlying reasons. His argument was that money can act as a door opener and the more money you have the more opportunities you have and the more empowered you are.

Ultimately, both statements could relate to the exact same amount of money - who's to say? A lot of money could be just about enough money to achieve your goal. It's the focus of the effort that changes. You can focus on the money, or on your goal. Personally, I would like to focus my efforts and energy on earning enough money to support my lifestyle, my future goals and stash away enough as a reserve in case of emergencies, allowing me to live my life as I see fit.

As to my acquaintance, I know that money is very important to him and ultimately being wealthy and financially secure might be the way for him to go. I also believe that he is commited and disciplined enough to never lose sight of his real aim: Improving the life of the people around him.