Closing the gender gap

Virtual EMBL | EMBO | HHMI conference will investigate how gender roles impact academia and research

Illustration of gender balances in academia
The virtual conference ‘Gender Roles and their Impact in Academia’ sets out to discuss gender imbalances and measures that could help to reduce them. Illustration: Pauline Marchetti/EMBO

What causes gender imbalances in academia, and what can be done to overcome them? To explore these questions, international experts in sociology, biology, psychology, education, and science policy will meet for a virtual conference from 13–15 Oct 2020. The conference ‘Gender Roles and their Impact in Academia’, co-organised by EMBL, EMBO, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, sets out to discuss societal biases and gender stereotypes. The conference’s outcomes will be integrated into a summary report that will include policy suggestions for increasing gender diversity in academia.

The origins of imbalance

Many of the prevailing gender imbalances are a consequence of societal expectations. “It’s still not broadly accepted for women to be in positions of power, or for men to take over the bulk of family duties,” says Gerlind Wallon, Deputy Director of EMBO and one of the scientific co-organisers of the conference. All genders feel pressured to conform to existing roles and base their career choices on them. In academia, these pressures are further increased, Gerlind explains. “The workload in academia makes it difficult to balance family and career. Women and men who are taking care of children feel they cannot keep up with their colleagues who forego family relations or delegate duties to their partners. This raises the question whether the aims of academia are compatible with the aim of equal opportunities.”

At EMBO, research into gender imbalances in academia started in the early 2000s. Despite gender-blinded selection, women showed lower success rates in applying for fellowships and the EMBO Young Investigators programme. “We found that those women who were selected were on par with men, but women overall had published fewer papers. Then we looked at how a previous cohort of selected candidates had done since selection. Again, women had published significantly fewer papers than men,” says Gerlind. A closer look revealed that women more often followed their partners to new jobs than men did. Women also took longer career breaks for childcare and worked fewer hours. In combination, all these factors lead to a lower retention rate of women in academia when it comes to leading positions. Across fields, women tend to drop out much more frequently than men.

Fixing the system

A previous conference organised by EMBL, EMBO, and CERN therefore focused on ways to improve career prospects for women in science. The participants concluded that programmes targeted specifically at women can lead to improvements, but that a change in institutional culture is also required. “Organisations often try to patch up women with special measures, while the actual problems are not addressed,” explains Gerlind. More recently, an EMBO workshop explored the value of quotas in academia. A good way to make changes, the workshop concluded, might be to implement a cascade model. In this approach, hiring quotas are flexibly adjusted to match the proportion of men and women found at the career level directly below.  

Clearly, novel strategies are needed. “I think this is where one now has to attack the societal end of things,” says Gerlind. “What do we feel are the roles of men and women?” The upcoming conference will begin by investigating the origin of gender roles from a societal and anthropological perspective. In another session, the concept of merit will be explored. “In academia, we claim to be merit-based, which is supposed to be a neutral metric. But it’s very difficult to define, and according to extensive research, it’s not gender neutral,” Gerlind explains. Finally, measures will be discussed that could help to reduce gender imbalances.

All of this will feed into a virtual workshop directly following the conference. Speakers will meet online with additional invited experts to prepare a summary report, based on input from the conference’s sessions and discussions. The report will give recommendations to heads of research institutes and funding agencies on how changes in institutional policies can lower gender imbalances in academic settings. “We want to explore what kinds of institutional support and higher-level policies are needed to ensure that the ‘opportunity’ to reach work and advancement goals does not merely mean a ‘possibility’ of doing so,” says Gerlind. “It’s clearly not only an issue in academia, but concerns society at large. We will not be able to change all of society, but we can certainly lower the barriers and change how we work in academia.”

Tags: Conferences, EMBL, EMBO, gender balance, Gender roles, Science policy, Virtual, workshop

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