Why Equal Access to the Academic Stage is Still an Upward Battle
“I remember one moment at a conference where I had just given a presentation and I had my young daughter with me,” Erica Bree Rosenblum, an associate professor of environmental science, policy, and management at UC Berkeley, recounted as part of a UC Davis video about Mothers in Science. “A senior colleague came up and said ‘that was a great presentation Bree, just make sure you don’t have another kid. Because that’ll kill your career.’”
Nearly 50 years after Title IX legislation was signed into US law to prohibit sex-based descrimination in academia and now in the center of the international #MeToo era, such a blatantly sexist comment as Rosenblum received should be harder to make. But as Rosenblum and 45 other working mothers in science attest to in an op-ed published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) in 2018, discrimination against mothers at academic science conferences is far from a thing of the past.
The op-ed, organized and co-authored by Rebecca Calisi Rodríguez, both a mother and associate professor of neurobiology, physiology, and behavior at UC Davis, specifically addresses the barriers female scientists face when trying to attend conferences with babies or young children, particularly universal access to lactation spaces and on-site childcare or childcare grants.
Recent research has shown that access to childcare is far from the only obstacle facing women at these conferences. Amy Hinsley, senior research fellow of Zoology at the University of Oxford and lead author of the 2017 study “Men ask more questions than women at a scientific conference,” tells Lady Science in an email that her study and a more recent 2019 study have both found women are less likely to ask questions at scientific conferences than their male colleagues, leading to stunted professional growth.
“We developed a model that we call the ‘Reputation Model,’ that tries to show the different ways that participation can be linked to career benefits, but also how there are feedback loops that mean that people who have the increased confidence that comes with career progression and a good scientific reputation are likely to also participate more,” Hinsley explains. “But it is clear that participating in conferences and other professional events increases your visibility to your peers and can build your reputation and benefit you in a number of ways.”
“By the end of this observation, they found that men in these sessions asked 1.8 questions for every question asked by a woman, or roughly 64 percent of the total questions.”
Hinsley’s study, published in PLoS One, focused on the 2015 meeting of the International Congress for Conservation Biology and the participation of its 2,000 attendees. The researchers observed and analyzed 31 conference sessions over four days and kept a count of how many questions were asked by men and women respectively. By the end of this observation, they found that men in these sessions asked 1.8 questions for every question asked by a woman, or roughly 64 percent of the total questions. This relationship also held consistent when the team focused specifically on the younger scientists in the audience, implying that the seniority of the male members didn’t necessarily influence their higher question rate.
A summer 2019 study in JAMA Oncology found the participation, or lack thereof, of women scientists only continues to get more difficult when motherhood is introduced. In the report led by University of Michigan Director of the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences and professor of oncology Reshma Jagsi, researchers found that a lack of available childcare at conferences was causing young mothers and early-career oncologists to forego conferences altogether and miss out on important career building opportunities.
“[These mothers] are missing out on opportunities for networking [and] for visibility,” Jagsi tells Lady Science. “The opportunity to visibly disseminate one’s research, and if one is not a researcher, to network with others in the field...so that one can gain leadership positions [and] good career advice.”
The study looked at the survey responses of 140 male oncologists and 108 female oncologists from 47 National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer centers. The group was asked to rate on a scale of 1-10 their reactions to questions about the influence that children and childcare had on their recent conference attendance. Despite having nearly identical ratios of parents and non-parents—in both groups about three-quarters of the respondents had young children—their feelings on how this affected their academic life were much different.
The survey found that just under 50 percent of the female respondents reported that having children negatively influenced their attendance of academic conferences, compared to roughly 35 percent of the male respondents. The survey also found female respondents were more likely than their male counterparts to respond that on-site childcare at conferences was “extremely important.”
When it comes to what exactly is causing these gender-based discrepancies, one question on Jagsi’s survey riddled that out. When asked whether they had a spouse who also worked full-time, just over 74 percent of the women responded that they did, compared to only 45 percent of the men. This response, Jagsi says, points to hard to budge gender roles that go far beyond the science community.
“We do live in a gender structured society,” Jagsi notes. “There are expectations in society that it’s perfectly acceptable for women to stay home and care for their children if their spouses earn a substantial income.”
While larger than academic science itself, these socially ingrained gender biases have been a foundation of women’s treatment in the sciences from the start, including in one of science’s oldest societies, the Royal Society in London. Founded in 1660, the Royal Society didn’t elect its first female fellows, crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale and biochemist Marjory Stephenson, until 1945. At the time, Lonsdale and Stephenson were two women amongst a crowd of 469 men. Today the numbers are only marginally better: 124 women compared to 1,341 men—a ratio of 1 woman for every 12 men—but the historic bias persists.
“The Royal Society has historically been male, and its members repeatedly nominated more males,” Aileen Fyfe, a historian at the University of St. Andrews and co-author of a critical article published in Nature about the Society’s gender divide, tells Lady Science in an email. “Until the very late 19thC, there were few women with sufficient education, plus research involvement, to have been likely candidates to join.”
Until well into the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women’s higher education was seen as unnecessary and even dangerous. For instance, Newnham College, the University of Cambridge’s first women’s college established in 1871, ascribes the shortage of highly educated women before the 19th century to the fact women’s education during that time was seen only as a way to make women better “wives and mothers,” through lessons in music, etiquette and basic arithmetic. The college writes that people at the time feared further academic aspirations would weaken a woman’s attachment to the home and too much knowledge could even harm a woman’s fertility. Fyfe points out that the stuttered pace toward equality even today can still likely be attributed to current male fellows continuing to nominate even more male fellows.
“[U]ultimately, the most important thing for these academic bodies to take-away is the importance of cultivating an awareness of the lack of diverse participation at STEM events, even beyond gender.”
Hinsley says that these residual effects of years of structural sexism and bias are also reflected in the study of conference participation, pointing to a wider culture of women being barred from STEM as contributing to the lower proportion of women asking questions.
But, while the battle for equal representation on the academic stage continues to be long fought and slowly won, some hope appears to be on the horizon.
“There are several conferences that are already taking steps to address this, and the reaction to our paper has been really good,” Hinsley explains. “Small things like making sure that the first question is from a woman have been shown to lead to a better balance [of questions.]”
And when it comes to making conferences easier for young mothers to attend in the first place, Jagsi says that she’s seen progress on that front as well. While in the process of reporting their findings, Jagsi says that the large annual oncology conference, ASCO, made the move to provide free, on-site childcare at that year’s conference.
“It was a phenomenal success,” Jagsi says. “It completely sold-out.”
Hinsley notes that, ultimately, the most important thing for these academic bodies to take-away is the importance of cultivating an awareness of the lack of diverse participation at STEM events, even beyond gender.
“Without that,” Hinsley says, “there is no way that we can move forward.”
Image credit: Cambridge, Newnham college for Women, ca. 1871 (Wikimedia Commons)