Sex inequality in science: skirting around the issue?

Image: Illumination from Scivias, by Hildegard von Bingen, ca. 1152.

Image: Illumination from Scivias, by Hildegard von Bingen, ca. 1152.

Recognising the under-representation of women in the sci­ence arena (includ­ing bot­any, which is a sci­ence – see David Chamovitz’s Daily Plant blog on this point), the European Commission (EC, Brussels-based over­lords of a Greater European polit­ical entity), have decided to do some­thing about it. Launched in June 2012 the premise of its ‘Science: it’s a girl thing!’ cam­paign is that, ‘There is a grow­ing pool of female tal­ent in Europe from which research and innov­a­tion should bene­fit… There are many factors at work explain­ing the lack of women in research in gen­eral and in some sec­tors in par­tic­u­lar… The cam­paign intends to address these ste­reo­types’. Its straight­for­ward goal is to ‘attract young women to research careers in order to increase the total num­ber of research­ers in Europe’. Nobel aims, and at a time when plant sci­ent­ists (OK, bot­an­ists) will be at the fore­front of solv­ing many of the most urgent global prob­lems (e.g. Claire Grierson et al.), what employ­ment ini­ti­at­ive could be more apt, and timely? Well – and you really couldn’t make it up – the EC cam­paign has not been without its ‘knock­ers’ (UK English col­lo­quial term for detract­ors). It’s not that the idea is bad, but there were ser­i­ous ‘issues’ with the video that accom­pan­ied the initiative’s launch. In the interests of bal­anced report­ing I watched the video. I con­cur with the out­raged news item which starts, ‘A man with a chiseled face dons his horn rims for a bet­ter look as three barely adult women in micromini dresses and stilet­tos cat­walk toward him. As he stares in shock, lust, and awe, each woman strikes a pose as a bass beat throbs in the back­ground’. Widely denounced on vari­ous social media sites and in respec­ted news media, and sat­ir­ised on YouTube, the video has since been removed on the grounds that the EC ‘does want it to dis­tract from the main cam­paign’. I think – hope! – that a ‘not’ has been inad­vert­ently omit­ted from that sen­tence in Mark Peplow’s art­icle on the usu­ally unim­peach­able Nature news blog site. And hot on the, err, high heels of the furore over that video is Katherine O’Brien and Karen Hapgood’s timely aca­demic study entitled ‘The aca­demic jungle: eco­sys­tem mod­el­ling reveals why women are driven out of research’. Applying eco­lo­gical meth­od­o­logy nor­mally reserved for invest­ig­at­ing how spe­cies battle to sus­tain them­selves in chal­len­ging hab­it­ats, the duo have invest­ig­ated why women are being driven out of sci­ence. Interestingly, the study not only iden­ti­fies how a gender imbal­ance in sci­ence and aca­demia is main­tained by insti­tu­tional bar­ri­ers, it also offers advice on strategies to enable part-timers – pre­dom­in­antly women who’ve taken career breaks to have chil­dren – to do bet­ter in the career pro­gres­sion and advance­ment stakes. Amongst its recom­mend­a­tions are meas­ures under the fol­low­ing cat­egor­ies: ‘For women work­ing in part-time roles in aca­demia: how to sur­vive’; ‘For women after a career break: how to re-enter aca­demia’; ‘For uni­ver­sity man­agers: how to help part-time staff thrive’; and ‘For uni­ver­sity admin­is­trat­ors: how to encour­age a pro­duct­ive, diverse work­force’. Ladies (and lads…), if you’re not com­pletely put off the idea of pur­su­ing sci­ence as a career, wel­come news of 66 new post-docs in… PLANT SCIENCE for you to apply for. Termed ‘PLANT FELLOWS’, it is a new inter­na­tional post-doc fel­low­ship pro­gramme in the field of plant sci­ences co-funded by the EC’s (!) Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) Marie Curie Actions – People, Co-funding of Regional, National and International Programmes (COFUND). Co-ordinated by the Zurich-based Plant Science Center, the scheme is open to applic­ants from all over the world to work within 14 European and seven inter­na­tional uni­ver­sit­ies and research insti­tutes and three industry part­ners selec­ted as host organ­isa­tions on the basis of their excel­lence in higher edu­ca­tion and plant research. And if you’re stuck for ideas of what to study and put in your applic­a­tion, look no fur­ther than Irene Lavagi et al.’s Open Access Commentary art­icle on a road map for the next dec­ade of Arabidopsis research (The Plant Cell, in press, 2012). Drawn up by the Multinational Arabidopsis Steering Committee (MASC), this 10-year ‘plan’ is inten­ded to inform sci­ent­ists and decision makers on the future foci of Arabidopsis research within the wider plant sci­ence land­scape. Bon voy­age, as the wor­thies in Brussels might say. [Please, no jokes about ‘have you got the map the right way up?’! – Ed. No, because it is well known that it is men who never ask for dir­ec­tions! – Mrs P. Cuttings]

Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

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