04 Sep 2018

Raising Awareness of The Glass Ceiling in Science

Gender Gap in Science is the largest cross-disciplinary project investigating gender inequality in academia. Since its inception in 2016, the project team has been able to attract a large number of participants from across the globe and has launched three initiatives for collecting and analyzing the evidence. Today we sat down with the Chair of the Executive Committee, Marie-Françoise Roy to discuss the progress of the project and her vision for the future of scientific emancipation. Interview by Olga Kuznetsova

 

June 2018 will mark the first anniversary of the project: how would you describe the achievements so far?

Marie-Francoise Roy opens the annual workshop on the progress of the Gender Gap project in Paris. Image: The Gender Gap in Science Project

The project was proposed during the fall 2016 and approved at the beginning on 2017. But, indeed, it really started in June 2017 with our first workshop in Paris and we are now at the end of the preparatory phase of the project.

Overall, we have succeeded in generating a strong momentum for the forthcoming research phases. First, we have reached an agreement with such data sources as zbMath, arXiv, and ADS that will be used in our study of publication patterns. Second, we have launched the Global Survey of Mathematical, Computing, and Natural Scientists and we invite all readers to take part in the survey and share it among their network. Furthermore, we have recruited a postdoc to develop a database of good practices for girls and young women, parents, and organizations, which will be available in English, French, and Spanish. You can see the latest updates about the project on website or twitter.

Being a global project, it is important for us to establish a platform for international and interdisciplinary co-operation. To this end, during 2017, we organized three regional workshops in Taipei, Bogota, and Cape Town, and there will be a coordination meeting in Paris in June 2018. The project is will end with a final conference taking place at ICTP at the end of 2019. I am very impressed by the energy and diversity of people that have been active in the project.

The importance of interdisciplinary co-operation became even more clear to me during the workshop in Taipei. On the first night, I noticed a group of Indian representatives engaged in an animated discussion during the dinner. I must confess that, at first, I felt a twinge of disappointment: here we are in the middle of a global project split into small country groups. However, it turned out that, even though all those people came from India and were active in the issues of gender inequality, they worked in different disciplines and had never met each other before. This was the first time when they could share their experiences and learn from each other.

I have also noticed that the set-up of the project really pushes us to be aware of the nuances of intercultural communication. For example, we had a very enlightening discussion about the concept of gender during the development of the Global Survey of Mathematical, Computing, and Natural Scientists. Not only were there disagreements about the appropriateness of gender dichotomy, but also it was not immediately clear how to choose the terminology for the non-binary options.  Finally, we decided to offer the three choices “male, female, prefer not to answer”.

“…we are uniquely positioned at the intersection of international and interdisciplinary co-operation and hope that this will help identify previously unnoticed patterns and develop impactful recommendations.”

 

In your opinion, how is the project different from other projects on gender inequality in science?

This is an excellent question since there are so many initiatives on the topic. So, what makes our project special? First, this is an interdisciplinary collaboration of scientific unions from a wide range of sciences, including mathematics, chemistry, physics, astronomy, computer sciences, and biology. Second, it is global and has a focus on developing countries.  Third, we build our research efforts on the experience from similar discipline-specific initiatives in physics and mathematics. In fact, thanks to a significant budget coming from the ICSU and the member unions, we can hire the people who ran those earlier initiatives. Finally, we will also describe the landscape of existing initiatives, with their successes and failures.

Overall, we are uniquely positioned at the intersection of international and interdisciplinary co-operation and hope that this will help identify previously unnoticed patterns and develop impactful recommendations.

 

The project covers a wide set of disciplines. Are all themes equally relevant to all disciplines or have you noticed discipline-specific challenges or solutions?

It is too early to say, but it is indeed a very important aspect of our work. One issue that we have noticed is the difference between gender inequality in the junior and senior roles. Sciences such as mathematics, physics, astronomy and computer science have traditionally been weak on gender inequality across all career stages. Yet even if we look at the sciences that are more balanced at the junior level, such as chemistry and biology, we still see a significant gender gap at the senior level.

 

I’ve noticed the project pays a special attention to the role of developing countries in science. How would you describe the progress in eliminating the gender gap there?

The first thing which is needed is to be able to collect data about the gender gap in developing countries since the gender gap in science is much better documented in the US or in Europe than, for example, in Africa. The second thing is to build a real international network of people who are actively engaged in reducing the gender gap. This is the reason why we started the project by organizing regional workshops in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

 

One challenge with this type of projects is to ensure that the findings translate into tangible actions. How are you planning to address this?

One of the goals of our project is to prepare a list of evidence-based recommendations for scientific unions, scientists, and the general public. While there is not enough time to address implementation during this project, we hope to generate enough momentum for follow-up initiatives focused on the concrete implementation of the recommendations.

 

“Sciences such as mathematics, physics, astronomy and computer science have traditionally been weak on gender inequality across all career stages. Yet even if we look at the sciences that are more balanced at the junior level, such as chemistry and biology, we still see a significant gender gap at the senior level.”

Let’s talk a bit about the situation in gender inequality more generally. In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges in overcoming gender inequality today? 

In general, men are more aware of the issue than in the past and I do notice the activity of several of them, particularly in the leadership of several scientific unions. However, there is still a long way to go. For example, less than 5% of our regional participants were men and unfortunately, it illustrates a wide-spread perception that gender inequality is a women-only issue. Historically, women’s contribution has not received sufficient attention, so it feels like every generation of women has to start from square one. Ironically, sometimes the few men who are active in gender equality initiatives receive more praise than the women in the same room. This, of course, is set in a broader culture in the society that will need to change before we can truly eliminate the gender gap in science.

 

Could you give some examples of gender equality initiatives with an active participation of men?

In France there three special days on “parité en mathématiques” (parity in mathematics) have been co-organized by the main institutions of the mathematics community:  CNRS,  INRIA, SMF, SMAI  and of course femmes & mathématiques and an active discussion list has been set, with men and women contributing. La Gazette des Mathématiciens has a regular column entitled “Parité (Parity)”, directed by Damien Gayet, with papers written by women or men. Some of the articles in the recent years include “A cartoon against sexism” by Jérôme Le Rousseau, “On the other side of the glass ceiling” by Indira Chatterji , “Gender stereotypes by Virginie Bonnot,  “The gender impact on publication patterns in mathematics “by Matthieu Romagny or  “Report on the Third Parity in Mathematics Day”, by  Aliénor Burel, Juliette Leblond, Barbara Schapira and Rozenn Texier-Picard. An equality chart “For women-men equality in mathematics” has been adopted by  Société Mathématique de France and a member of the SMF Council, Matthieu Romagny, is in charge of parity issues.

In general, men are more aware of the issue than in the past and I do notice the activity of several of them, particularly in the leadership of several scientific unions. However, there is still a long way to go. For example, less than 5% of our regional participants were men and unfortunately, it illustrates a wide-spread perception that gender inequality is a women-only issue.

In the period that you have been active in promoting gender equality in sciences, how has the conversation evolved?

I think the biggest change I’ve witnessed is the growth of the network of people who promote gender equality in mathematics and sciences.

Back when I started during the 70s, there was only the Association for Women in Mathematics, active in the US and Canada. Initially, I participated in various discussion groups and gave a talk entitled “Les femmes et les mathématiques” in the seminar Mathématiques et Philosophie in 1980. Finally, in 1987, we launched femmes et maths in France and European Women in Mathematics in Europe.

Now there are associations all over the world (Africa, India, Latino-America) and we have a website advertising their initiatives.  Moreover, the IMU has created the Committee for Women in Mathematics in 2015 and is leading the Gender Gap Project.

Also, I think it’s not only the size of the network but also the level of energy and engagement that has improved. Today, CWM has 120 ambassadors who are opinion-leaders and decision-makers in their local mathematical communities and work together on various projects.

One recent highlight is the movie “Faces of women in mathematics“. The initiative was proposed by Eugenie Hunsicker, the Chair of the London Maths Society Women in Maths Committee, and her sister Irina Linke, a filmmaker. Thanks to the promotional efforts of the ambassadors, the project received nearly 150 contributions featuring over 240 women from 36 different countries speaking 31 different languages. The movie was warmly received by the mathematical community and affirms the presence of women in mathematics.

However, there is still a long way to go to ensure gender equality. In many cases, we are still unable to determine the real impact of our initiatives on the lives of female mathematicians. Also, I hope to see more females on the editorial boards of top journals.

 

What kind of advice would you give to the men and women who want to engage in the empowering women in science?

I can only quote there one of my favorite paragraphs from The Exception and the Rule (in German Die Ausnahme und die Regel) by Bertolt Brecht.

Find it estranging even if not very strange

Hard to explain even if it is the custom

Hard to understand even if it is the rule

Observe the smallest action, seeming simple,

With mistrust

Inquire if a thing be necessary

Especially if it is common

We particularly ask you –

When a thing continually occurs –

Not on that account to find it natural

Let nothing be called natural

In an age of bloody confusion

Ordered disorder, planned caprice,

And dehumanized humanity, lest all things

Be held unalterable!”