Women in Science – Incentives don’t match the goals

For International Women and Girls in Science day we have a guest post from some of the leaders of the 500 Women Scientists movement, Terry Bilinski, Emily Lescak and Kelly Ramirez. Their mission is to serve society by making science open, inclusive, and accessible.

For more than a decade, we have been engaged in a vigorous dialogue about the barriers to creating a more equitable scientific community in terms of gender balance and cultural background. There has been a concerted effort from many different perspectives to better understand and communicate about the issue through original research 1 2 3 4, review articles and reports by think tanks and government agencies 5 6, conference sessions and workshops (for example), not to mention innumerable opinion pieces in publications ranging from Science to US News and World Report to the Huffington Post. Millions of dollars in funding through foundations and government agencies have been dedicated to efforts directed at increasing diversity and equity in STEM. A large majority of the scientific community has raised their hand and said, “Yes, creating equity in the sciences is important.” And yet, the problem still looms large.

Here for International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we explore why advancement incentives have fallen short of making the sciences equitable and inclusive.

Revisiting what we know

There are many thoughtful assessments of why our progress has stalled. For example, many still don’t believe that bias contributes to gender inequities in STEM 7, despite significant scientific evidence 8 9 10 and highly publicized cases of sexual harassment within STEM 11. In addition, structural barriers such as a lack of paid family leave and affordable childcare, the “two body problem” and academic nomadism all prevent full representation for women and underrepresented minorities. Causing further damage, the period of time when many families are having children coincide with the post-graduate years when research productivity is most important for ascending the ranks within the profession. This disproportionately affects women.

One area in which there has been progress is in the gender balance of undergraduates in general, and even among some STEM fields. However, that representation in gender balance and increasing cultural diversity does not track into higher ranks of science, inside and outside of academia. Studies consistently demonstrate that women leave academia as they move up the ranks. Problems with attrition can be attributed to barriers in creating an inclusive academic environment. These barriers are compounded by perpetuated stereotypes that successful academics need to put their families and personal lives aside to work overtime and are discouraged from taking opportunities to engage in professional and career development that will benefit their careers.

Undervalued mentorship

We also know that there is a lack of mentorship, especially for women from backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM. This is at least in part because the higher ranks within STEM are still predominantly white and male. There is ample evidence that “you cannot be what you cannot see” for underrepresented groups in STEM: one cause of attrition for women and people of color is a lack of mentors or role models to whom they relate. The women and people of color who are in mentor positions in STEM tend to spend much more time than their white male counterparts mentoring and advising students. This additional academic service can potentially penalize mentors because that time is not being spent on academic publishing and seeking research funding. Mentoring, outreach, and other incredibly important services to STEM are essentially sunk opportunity costs for professionals who are already at a disadvantage when it comes to promotion within their profession due to bias and historical and structural barriers.

Can we find a solution?

Advancement in STEM is still primarily based on productivity in two areas: publications and grant funding. Although excellent mentorship can sometimes feed into greater productivity in those areas, often being a good mentor involves time focused on advancing the careers of others in exchange for some productivity loss. Yet, it is now established that excellent mentoring is critical to greater equity in STEM. So why is this not incentivized?

If we really care about increasing the diversity and equity of STEM, we must update our incentive structure in support of those goals.

  • Mentoring and outreach activities that benefit inclusion should be rewarded when it comes to promotion and tenure and competitiveness for jobs.
  • To displace the time burden of mentorship more evenly, all faculty need to regularly participate in training in mentoring diverse trainees, such as that which is available from the National Research Mentoring Network.
  • Consider ways in which we can reduce the negative effects of implicit bias in hiring and promotion practices, funding, and the peer review process. The biases that hurt women and people of color as they move through science are likely apparent on CV’s in terms of numbers of publications, grants, and invited talks at conferences. We can consider removing identifying information when reviewing CV’s for jobs, promotion and tenure packages, grant proposals, and papers for publication.
  • Universities can also focus on cultivating talent from within and finding opportunities for trainees to transition to full-time, permanent positions, which prevents them from having to uproot themselves to get to the next level.
  • University-industry partnerships can also help trainees who are seeking alt-ac careers to find local employment.
  • It is time for the United States to join other countries in providing paid family leave for individuals with children. This benefit needs to be available at all levels, including undergraduate, graduate, postdoc, faculty, and staff. Those individuals who take prolonged leaves of absence need to have opportunities to re-enter the workforce.
  • Universities would also benefit students, faculty, and staff by providing subsidized child care. This is particularly true of institutions with high numbers of non-traditional students who are juggling parental and academic responsibilities. One of the benefits of academia is having a flexible schedule, which allows parents to work around school/daycare schedules and capitalize on those hours of the week in which they can be most productive. However, it can be alienating when individuals are expected to attend events outside of normal work hours and have to decline because of familial obligations.
  • Lastly, the constant need to travel for conferences, workshops, and meetings with collaborators can span the spectrum from burdensome to impossible for parents, especially those with non-academic spouses and/or young children. Scientific societies, such as the Society for the Study of Evolution, are increasingly recognizing this and providing on-site childcare. Others are raising the bar by providing awards for trainees to cover the costs of childcare or to fly out a guardian.

As leaders of the 500 Women Scientists organization our mission to serve society by making science open, inclusive, and accessible. Here we only discuss one component of inclusion in the sciences – incentives for mentorship. In reality there is not one solution to bring equity to the sciences, but there are many steps we as individuals and that our institutions can take:

The steps that we highlight above do not require radical changes, but would serve to make academic environments more inclusive to women and other traditionally underrepresented groups. This year for International Day of Women in Science we ask you to consider one step you can take to improve equity in the sciences.

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