Taking charge by seeking ways to achieve gender balance

International scientific institutions host conference exploring breadth of gender diversity issues and potential solutions

Abstract graphic with big waves of black, white and grey somewhat like yin and yang, with two brain-shaped leaves in the upper right and lower left quadrants, one of which is green and more leafy-looking.
The conference raised numerous gender diversity issues and delved into the ways many organisations are addressing them to identify avenues for policymaking. Credit: Pauline Marchetti/EMBO; EMBL

A conference designed not “just to talk, but to explore solutions”. That’s how EMBL Director General Edith Heard opened the conference ‘Gender Roles and their Impact in Academia’, co-hosted with the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

A key strength of the conference lay in its interdisciplinarity and the conversations generated between science and the social sciences. The conference explored how biology and social structures shape gender roles, focusing on ways to achieve equal opportunities in the workplace and specifically in academia. Almost 500 people from around the world registered to participate.

“There’s increasing evidence that when we build diversity into organisations and research, the outputs – which then combine multiple perspectives – are richer, more resilient, and carry a lower exposure to risk,” said Eileen Furlong, Head of EMBL’s Genome Biology Unit and one of the conference’s scientific organisers. “Inclusive leadership is, therefore, a key way forward for a progressive research organisation that wishes to impact society in ways that are equitable to all – an important goal for EMBL. Until the gender gap is closed, we lose out every day on the intelligence and innovation women can bring to science.”

During the conference, participants engaged in conversation to identify conditions that enable gender equity and those that limit it, with the hope of generating new norms. The conference was anchored by the principles that norms are not set in stone and that international organisations have a responsibility to redefine the equality, diversity, and inclusion agenda.

Tracing biological and societal connections

Mel Konner, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, explored the arc of evolution in his keynote lecture. He noted the rise of women in the US Senate and among CEOs and world leaders. Mel pointed out that countries led by women were among the most successful at controlling the spread of COVID-19. “When I see all this, I’m very encouraged about the future because of the trajectory,” Mel said. “Unfortunately, it is a slow process.”

Claartje Vinkenburg, Associate Professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and Joseph Hermanowicz, Professor of Sociology at the University of Georgia, noted that this is what also happens to our meritocracy. They pointed out how merit is not a well-defined concept and has a strong gender component.

Cordelia Fine, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne, gave the keynote lecture on the second day of the conference, focusing on the question of justice. “There are several important reasons to increase workplace gender diversity which are rarely discussed in print media,” she said. “These include greater equality in power and leadership, positive effects on organisational governance, a reduction in male-centrism in products and services delivered to the community, as well as the economic and social benefits for men.” The question that we need to ask ourselves by way of a paradigm shift, she concluded, is “what women can do for the organisation rather than what the organisation can do for women”.

Finding balance in academia

Sarah Damaske, Associate Professor of Sociology, Labor and Employment Relations, and Women’s Studies at Pennsylvania State University, explored the gender issues that have arisen for men, particularly in households where family responsibilities are shared equally. By polling male academics, she found disparities that echoed the challenges faced by these academics’ female counterparts, particularly among those early in their careers, who consciously opt out of marriage and family or struggle to find balance. The challenge, she noted, is that it is often older male academics used to functioning in gender-stereotypical family roles who take decisions affecting workplace policy, thereby slowing progress in gender equity.

Tugce Bilgin Sonay, a lecturer in evolutionary biology at Columbia University, helped found a commission for gender equality in academia and is one of three women who established SURGE, a programme to foster diversity in STEM. Her own experiences of overcoming a physical disability through the goal of simply being able to commute to work by bicycle opened her eyes to how the right infrastructure leads to success and confidence. “Diversity challenges are surmountable, especially if you build a support network. I accepted myself for who I am – with all the differences and challenges – and I address them,” she explained. She passes on what she has learned in terms of empowerment to her students.

Confronting unconscious bias, achieving real meritocracy, and building bridges

The final keynote address delved into one of the most challenging aspects of building a more diverse working environment: unconscious biases. Jo Handelsman, Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, looked back over 50 years of research concluding that “unconscious bias is so difficult to root out. It’s very difficult to expect anyone to be free of unconscious biases. And it’s the people who flat-out deny they have these biases who are the ones who apply them the most. All we can do is use our conscious mind to mitigate the impact.”

EMBO Director Maria Leptin raised the question of merit as an ill-defined concept in the workplace, pointing out that we have a long way to go to challenge the way merit, confidence, competence, and leadership are currently envisioned with a male bias. Looking more closely at reasons why women and minorities do not rise through the ranks proportionately, given their representation in society and academia, is key to formulating solutions.

The conference acknowledged the realities of intersectionality that exist within the group ‘women’. Ijeoma Uchegbu, Professor of Pharmaceutical Nanoscience at University College London (UCL) and UCL Provost’s Envoy for Race Equality, shared the multi-pronged approach that UCL is taking to tackle systemic inequality through a review of pay gaps, recruitment processes, and transparency in demographic data. In relation to the risk of being identified as a “tokenistic black woman”, Ijeoma spoke of the importance of “taking her place at the table with competence and confidence and showing the way to equity”.

Jeff Hearn, Professor of Sociology at the University of Huddersfield, made the point that “we cannot have gender equality unless we discuss men and masculinities and revisit what being a man has come to mean today, and what new models of masculinity could mean on the path to equity”.

Other speakers reported on a number of measures already being taken. Some experiments involving quotas are happening in Germany and the Netherlands, while the European Research Council and Swedish Research Council are putting emphasis on educating selection panels to reach equal success rates. Stephen Curry, Professor of Structural Biology and Assistant Provost for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Imperial College London, discussed the amount of work and effort needed to recognise and combat failures of current systems, emphasising that it requires honest self-analysis and commitment at the highest level to be able to address these.

The conference ended with the message that collaborative work by a range of advocates and change-makers would be key to accelerating change. During her final remarks, Maria Leptin pointed out that all discussions and contributions to the conference will be incorporated into a policy study led by the EMBO Science Policy Programme, which will be conducted over the next six months to fully analyse options that institutes may adopt to work towards equity.

Tags: conference, diversity, embo, gender balance, hhmi, inclusion, virtual event, women in science


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