By Luiza Toledo, Science Communication Fellow 2019
Luiza Toledo writes about how the IIASA Women in Science Club are creating a safe space to talk about and advance gender equality in science.
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. A recent report titled, Harnessing the power of data for gender equality produced by Equal Measures 2030, however, shows that we still have a long way to go before this goal becomes a reality.
Countries in Europe and North America, along with two in the Asia-Pacific region (Australia and New Zealand), achieved the highest scores in terms of gender equality on the 2019 SDG Gender Index. However, even in the 20 top scoring countries, there are still indicators that score low. This suggests that even the countries with high overall scores for gender equality are struggling with thorny issues – one of them being women in science and technology research positions.
As an international institute, IIASA was founded on the principles of equal opportunity, which naturally includes equality in terms of gender balance. The institute’s 2018 Annual Report shows that the number of early-career female IIASA scientists has steadily been growing over the last few years. Since 2016, the number of female researchers increased by 24%, with most of the new hires joining as research assistants. Despite this increasing trend, the gap for PhD level researchers is as high as it has ever been with men outnumbering women four to one. In addition, there is a lack of female scientists in the over-40 age group, which is by no means unique to IIASA. Researchers who study gender and science have even compared women’s careers in science with a leaky pipeline – a flawed channel system that loses quantity before it reaches the destination.
Even though it is unrealistic to expect a 100% retention of women in science related careers (or any career for that matter), male researchers still have a much higher retention rate in scientific careers than their female colleagues do, and this is where the problem lies. According to the IIASA Diversity and Work Environment Report from 2015, male researchers at IIASA on average stay with the institute for seven years, whereas female researchers stay for only four years. To overcome the leaky pipeline effect, we should start creating a workplace culture that aims to recruit and retain women and is more open to discussing and tackling gender issues in academia, thereby developing a safe networking space.
The Women in Science Club (WISC) at IIASA is a great example of a safe networking space that embraces gender equality and shows the power of women that support other women. Co-led led by Amanda Palazzo, a researcher in the institute’s Ecosystems Services and Management Program, and IIASA Network and Alumni Officer Monika Bauer, the club has a self-proclaimed mission to build a network where women connected to science can share experiences, empower themselves, and highlight the work of other women connected to science.
The idea of creating a network of women in science came about in the fall of 2016 when former Finnish President, Tarja Halonen, visited IIASA. During her visit, she asked to meet with the women of IIASA to talk about diversity and equity issues. This conversation was the first of several meetings that are now attended by women (and men) across the institute under the auspices of WISC.
“The conversation was inspiring and after that first meeting, a few of us thought about organizing a club to continue working on the issues that came up from our discussion with President Halonen,” explains Palazzo.
Nowadays, the WISC organizers arrange lunchtime meetings known as “Meet, greet, and eat” sessions to coincide with visits to IIASA by prominent researchers and other professionals from IIASA and elsewhere who want to share their experiences.
“I’ve found that more experienced and senior women who may have been the only women in their departments at the start of their careers or may have had to fight for a seat at the table are often the quickest to agree to meet with WISC. This shows me that they see the value in a club like ours,” Palazzo adds.
Although the number of women now engaged in science is the highest it has ever been, there are still too few women in positions of leadership. According to Palazzo, at IIASA, this situation is set to change with the institute’s newly appointed Deputy Director General for Science who joined IIASA in November this year.
“I’m excited that Leena Srivastava has joined us and I hope that this is just the start of many changes at IIASA that will bring more women into positions of leadership,” she says.
Palazzo says that the most valuable thing that she has learned so far is that no two women have the same story or path to success.
“I found it reassuring to hear successful women tell us that when they were starting out or even several years into their careers they also didn’t know exactly what contribution they wanted to make. They were learning as they went along. It has also been useful to hear women talk about building resilience to negative comments or behaviors and recognize that these behaviors reflect the other person’s fear and insecurity. In the end, the Women in Science Club is a place to share, contribute, listen, and learn. We want women connected to science to feel that they are a member of our community, that they have a seat at our table, and that they belong here,” she concludes.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.