Women and science

Gender differences continue to afflict technical workplaces, and universities are not an exception. On Wednesday, April 23rd, a discussion panel met at Betahaus to report on their experiences on this topic and try to identify possible causes and solutions.

The panel was organised by the Pop Science Cafe and moderated by Sarah Hermanutz; it included Anja Matkovic (Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine Berlin), Annie Raymond (Zuse-Institute Berlin), Krithika Hariharan (Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin), Stefanie Lenk (freelancer), Arndt Pechstein (Biomimicry Germany), and Eloisa Bentivegna (Wissenswerkstatt Berlin). The discussion tried to address several questions.

Are women really underrepresented in academic science departments?

This is fairly straightforward to answer: yes. The subtler question is whether women in managerial positions are significantly more underrepresented in academic research than in other professions, and the answer seemed to be in the negative: the tendency to hire male leaders is shared across the spectrum, irrespective from the work field.

Are they excluded, or do they simply opt out?

There appears to be a combination of both. Contributions from the different speakers indicated a mix of factors: women can feel they do not share values with the science community, have a harder time bonding with their (mostly male) colleagues, and in some cases be the object of blatant discrimination.

Is this a problem?

This question is perhaps the core issue. It is often interpreted (and addressed) as one of political correctness: universities are publicly funded, and thus need to be diverse and inclusive workplaces. This is certainly a valid statement, but resonates with the uneasy feeling that appointing more women is some sort of charitable action (and that we are going to sacrifice some productivity in the name of gender balance). Someone wonders (more or less overtly) whether we can really afford these measures at the expense of the many excellent (male) candidates already available. But is this really the case? A famous study from 2012 has proven the existence of quantifiable psychological biases during the evaluation of academic CVs, implying that the way scientists are evaluated and selected for jobs may be inherently flawed. How can we then trust that current practices do select the best overall candidate? Measures to remove these discriminations from the workplace are not just ethical, they are the road to ensure that less capable job applicants (of any gender) are given priority due to a stale evaluation system. Removing all forms of discrimination from the workplace does not conflict with the pursuit of excellence and the advancement of science.

The debate took place in front of an attentive audience, who didn’t hesitate to contribute to the discussion as soon as the Q&A section started. Interestingly enough, as the discussion proceeded, the focus started to include other controversial areas of the academic work life, such as publishing and career progression, indicating how all these issues may be interrelated and symptomatic of the same causes.