Women in science: what are we aiming for? 

Earlier today, I dressed up in a clean shirt and my shiny shoes ready to head to the National Press Club to hear a panel address on gender equity in Australian science. There has been lots of discussion flying around at the moment about the cause of a lack of diversity, from broad sector issues through to individual workplace behaviour.

While putting my shiny clothes on  this morning, I multi-tasked my way through a blog post that reflected a common point of discussion around gender equity in academia, arguing that women should attempt to emulate the behaviour of successful men. The post framed the idea of “good little girls”, suggesting that successful young women scientists tend to be dutiful, diligent and fastidious.

Women are duty bound, work quickly to meet deadlines and this is epitomised by our collective habit of taking on (/being expected to take on) large and onerous service commitments that are for the most part thankless time-sinks.

The author argues that we are “good little girls” who play by the rules. In contrast, successful boys who “have atrocious study habits, who skip classes” become successful male academics. The authors argues that women’s service is the problem:

“The good little girl is in danger of a) doing much more service then necessary, b) doing much more or more laborious teaching than the colleagues who are not good little girls, c) generally being misinformed about what all that teaching and service really do for her career, because everyone expects her to act as a good little girl and, at the same time, thinks less of her for doing so.”

In order to solve the problem “We could and should be just as self-centered as any mischievous little boy.”

I’ve recently moved to a new department with very different workplace culture from the last. Women are commonplace and we even have a friendly lunchtime gender discussion group. At this month’s discussion on equity, it became apparent that collectively, we don’t have a clear or uniform idea of what we are aiming for.

While some young researchers crave an environment where women can participate as men do now (i.e. as mischievous little boys), others are aiming for a broad-scale re-imagining of participation in academia.

Personally, I want the opportunity to contribute to science, but I don’t want to contribute on the narrow terms that currently tend to define success. I don’t want to work 80+ hours a week, I don’t want to be self-centred, I don’t want to be disempowered in my personal life by a stay-at-home partner supporting me practically and emotionally.

I want to work hard for a realistic number of hours. I want to sharing future parenting with my academic partner and have either or both of us take maternity leave. I want to serve my department and my community.

If we choose, the recent collective focus on diversity and equity provides us with a chance to re-evaluate our industry and workplaces culture. For many researchers, we are our jobs, our research, our ways of working. Such an appraisal provides us with a chance to ask, what we are aiming for?

Is it 50% female and 50% male professors in every department, regardless of disciplinary focus? Is it parity at the executive level? Or are we aiming for something subtler, by striving to create an environment where women are confidently welcomed into the hard sciences and men confidently embraced in more traditional roles such as early childhood education, midwifery and nursing?

I love academia and am so institutionalised I’m not sure I could list any alternative careers more imaginative then a 4 year old (policeman, doctor, teacher, ???). A couple of years ago, when mentoring me through a grant writing endeavour, a senior supervisor asked me what questions kept me awake at night. I was embarrassed that my insomnia was dominated by broader industry concerns and not scientific ones. I prevaricated, and eventually bluffed my way through with vague discussion about drought and soil moisture.

In truth, I’m concerned about the research industry. How we can get the most out of Australia’s investment in young researchers? How can we provide opportunities to all, regardless of background? How can we facilitate a creative academy that rewards risk-taking?

If we are aiming for universal access to our current academy, we are already limiting our thinking and necessarily undermining our ability to provide broad opportunities for participation. We will value what we already have, regardless of how narrow. But many young men don’t want to participate in traditional academic ways of working and many young women don’t feel welcome into or are actively excluded from such a culture.

I don’t want to be selfish and I don’t feel impelled to see myself as a good girl. I want to maintain my interests and skills and ways of working and I want to be valued for what I bring to science. And if this were the case, we would be admonishing selfish boys for not contributing; we would not be emulating them.


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