Women in science - what responsibility do male scientists have?

National Science Week is drawing to a close and last night I had the pleasure of watching Professor Veena Sahajwalla from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), Sydney and Dr Karl Kruszelnicki from the University of Sydney (USyd), give extremely passionate and engaging talks at the National Convention Centre in Canberra. Topics were diverse and ranged from explaining current and future electronic waste recycling strategies to discussing the importance of understanding why diet alcoholic drinks get you drunk quicker. However, it was the first question asked by a young girl during Q&A, which I felt spoke volumes to a core theme of science week this year, which was:

“How do we get more women into science?”

The more that I have thought about this question in the past, the more I have realised my own ignorance on the topic. When I was a fresh-faced undergraduate neuroscience student, I looked around the auditorium during lectures expecting to see a disparity in male to female student numbers. Surprisingly, in all of my lectures I saw equal, if not more women sitting in the lecture theatres with me. When volunteering with a wide range of neuroscience/psychology lab groups, once again I saw a similar trend, where the number of women significantly outweighed the number of men.

What was going on here? There has always been a strong push to promote the number of women in science and yet at every turn in my career I have not seen any shortage of women in science. Is it possible that neuroscience is ahead of its time in promoting gender equality in science? Perhaps getting women involved in science is a generational issue that has since been resolved by the fortitude and passion of senior female scientists?

I took this anecdotal evidence to my sister, Raji Ambikairajah – who is a passionate advocate for women in STEM careers. Surprisingly, my findings did not come as a shock to her in the slightest. She asked me one simple question, which enabled me to glimpse into the challenges that women face in STEM careers. The question was this:

“How many women were in the management roles within the research groups?”

After a few quick moments, the realisation hit me.

Zero.

Evidently the increasing number of women in science today is not a reflection that the glass ceiling has been broken, instead it is an indication that the glass ceiling has been moved higher.

Determined to learn more, I looked to female leaders in STEM, which led me to find Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In”. Sheryl Sandberg was the Vice President of global online sales and operations at Google before moving into the role of Chief Operating Officer for a small tech start up company that was working on providing a social media platform to connect people from all over the world. That social media platform was Facebook.

Sandberg’s book provided further insight into the systemic challenges that women face in leadership and at the intersection between their professional and personal lives. This book led me to question the responsibility of male scientists to help promote gender equity in all levels of science.

Being aware of this bias could be useful in providing some form of self-correction. This point has been emphasised by Sheryl Sandberg who says, “we cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change”. As a result, awareness can ensure that more men support talented female researchers who are seeking to apply for executive roles. This is a critical strategy as it ensures that women can shape important decisions, which impact the future culture of scientific organisations.

Interestingly, in recent months there have been movements by prominent male scientists to take a stance and step down from conferences that did not include leading female scientists as well. This strategy has mostly been received well on social media; however, I am unsure whether this has resulted in the desired outcome or whether conference organisers just offer the position to another male scientist? Using this platform to raise awareness about the issue could be another way forward for male scientists.

At the end of the day, the immense push by universities and other scientific organisations engaged in outreach has been an effective strategy for applying pressure to the social constructs within the scientific field. In saying this, it is always important to establish a marker for success when aiming to achieve a desired outcome. Whilst there are many measures to use for this issue, an important one for me is the normalisation of female scientists in leadership positions. To get to this place, however, a lot more work needs to be done.

“I was taught that the way of progress was neither swift nor easy”
- Marie Curie

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Ananthan Ambikairajah
Lecturer

Neuroscientist. Educator. Science Communicator.