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]

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About Nigel Chaffey

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic in a UK university. 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 amusing, educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.