27 Nov 2021

The face of academia: what are we waiting for?

Article by Rebecca Waldecker and Maria Westdickenberg

The face of academia: What are we waiting for?

Picture a scientist. What do you see?

For decades we have invested time, funding, and initiatives into diversifying the image of ‘scientist’ in the minds of academics, the general public, and school-age children. Despite these efforts, women (half the population) remain drastically underrepresented in science and technology.

Gender balance has proved elusive in part because so many structures have been built by men, so many habits have been shaped by men, and so many success stories are about men. Pushing for change has included trying to adapt decision processes and to change the culture of conversation. Change has been slow. Expensive. And limited.

Although the flexibility of an academic job is often touted as a benefit, academics know it to be a double-edged sword. Our work and private lives have blurry boundaries. We work overtime without even thinking about it. Being obsessed with one’s work seems not only standard but necessary. Often we hide responsibilities like taking care of children or of sick and disabled family members, in case colleagues would think that we are less professional or less reliable because of challenges in our private lives. In particular the pressure during the early career stage leaves little room for anything but research results, publications, grant proposals, and teaching.

Change is slow in part because of decision processes on grant panels and hiring committees. As committee members we work under the illusion that we can “select the best candidate”. We tell ourselves that the best, most talented, most committed people come out on top. We ignore that some candidates had more luck than others. That publications, invitations to conferences, and grant records may say as much about connections and timing as about talent. Because it would be a difficult and complex task to know how to evaluate someone’s personal or professional advantage, we close our eyes.

Let us adopt the following hypothesis:

Research institutions benefit from motivated individuals who can concentrate on their work without too many existential worries. We are more creative, productive, and successful in an open and diverse environment.

We have moved towards this goal over the past twenty years. Slowly, but steadily.
And now think about the coronavirus pandemic.

The effects of the pandemic have not been uniform. There are members of our community who have been dealt a serious blow, who have struggled

1. to collect data and perform research because of a lack of time (childcare, home-schooling, eldercare,…) or because of constraints imposed by the pandemic,
2. to find the time to write papers, grant proposals, etc.,
3. to speak at conferences or make new connections.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are researchers whose work has not been negatively affected, who were even more productive than before because of their professional and personal situations.

This creates a huge imbalance! The differences that we will see, for example in the publication records of future job applicants, will not reflect only talent and potential.

All the data indicates that women, in particular mothers, have been disadvantaged disproportionately. This imbalance creates new vulnerability in fields in which women are underrepresented. A few years from now we will get fewer and weaker applications from women. This is a problem in itself, but also a concrete disadvantage for large grant applications where gender balance is a factor.

If you accept the hypothesis above, then we are moving away from our goal at a pace not seen in generations. If we do nothing, then 10 years from now we will have fewer junior colleagues who are caregivers, who are women, who have been sensitized by the pandemic. We will have fewer women scientists as role models.

Where is the momentum for proactive action at universities, research institutions, and funding agencies?

There are so many questions to consider:

Is it reasonable to offer extra support to junior academics severely affected by the pandemic?

Should we pay particular attention to women?

What kind of support is helpful? Who pays for it?

Do we think that the best, most talented, and most committed people will necessarily come out on top? Why would that be the case?

If not, does that mean that hiring committees should take the pandemic into account?
If so, how? If not, why not?

We’ve all lived through the pandemic, but we haven’t experienced it equally. How can those of us in permanent positions advocate for the junior scientists whose careers are at risk? How do we make their voices heard?

Which information would help us decide whether to act and how?
Which data do we need?
What are we waiting for?

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