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Sustaining Equity, Retaining Talent: Tackling Systemic Inequity for Women in Science and Research

Sustaining Equity, Retaining Talent: Tackling Systemic Inequity for Women in Science and Research

11 February was established in 2015 as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science to recognise us as agents of change, yet women are still underpaid and undervalued for the work they do. Women are continually subjected to systems that actively make our workforce weaker due to excluding women from leadership in science and research. Women and girls consistently need to work harder for less and unless systems are set up to actively change this inequity, our world will continue to suffer. When intersectionality is considered, Asian, Black, Indigenous, Latina/é/o, and Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) women and transgender women are excluded from opportunities at alarming high rates. This blog will provide background and recommendations for institutional change to support women in science.

Women are vital to progress in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM), yet are subjected to systems that purposely exclude them from succeeding and becoming leaders in their fields. Thus, the United Nations sought to develop the International Day of Women and Girls in Science Assembly to create opportunities for women in science and research. More women are leading research labs and are reaching higher career levels than ever before, yet parity still does not exist. Women must navigate institutions that were not designed by or for them and who do not value their talents nor support their needs. Importantly, sustainability and retainment of women and girls in science has continually been an issue as structures of grant funders, institutions, and educational opportunities discriminate against women and girls (Starbird et al., 2024). Inequity and structural sexism cut women and girls’ potential, stagnating the world’s progress. Women are paid less for the same work as men, which is even worse for Asian, Black, Indigenous, Latina/é/o, and Middle Eastern/North African women worldwide. Barriers include systemic racism, misogynoir, unequal division of unpaid care and domestic work, and discrimination in places of power. These inequities have also been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic (UN, 2023).

Women make defining contributions to science yet routinely are not supported for career advancement and have their input and innovations dismissed. Our institutional systems of hiring and promotion are not equitable, and women face discrimination in pay and grant funding, not to mention abuse and harassment (Starbird et al., 2024). Women in science take on more service and mentoring roles, work that is undervalued in the promotion process. This takes away time and energy that could be spent elsewhere and means that the time women have to work on research is lower than counterparts who do not have such heavy service and mentoring burdens. Thus, we need to create policy reforms to dismantle systemic barriers.

So, what do we do? We change our systems to reflect equity at every level and step of the process. Below are some ways to push forward.

Recruitment of women scientists:

  • Create a clear rubric for evaluation of applicants that is provided when applying. Although some institutions have adopted this policy, it is not standard throughout STEAM fields and institutions.
    • This rubric should value service as much as research and teaching. Mentoring future scientists is a large part of the job of current scientists, but often falls to women and women of color at much higher rates than men.
  • Redefine values for hiring, including valuing service and social justice focused work.
  • Higher salaries and strong benefits. I know of many women who had to turn down promising research positions because the benefits would not support their family.

Retention of women scientists:

  • Develop support systems for all students, staff, and scientists that include accessible child/family care. Although these policies help all genders, they are particularly important for keeping women in science and research as they are more likely than men to be caregivers and take on about 3x as many unpaid hours in domestic and care work (UN, 2024).
  • Change promotion guidelines to value service at equal levels to research and teaching. This is radical, and service has been constantly devalued in science, but is also something that is requested of researchers everywhere, while done by the minority (namely, women and people of color or others who hold other systemically oppressed backgrounds).
  • In promotion materials, everyone should provide data on how they work toward equity in every aspect of their job. This should be then used in promotion and raises.
  • Higher and equitable pay. Institutions must examine the inequity in pay, which includes salaries, but also includes who gets asked to hold paid leadership service opportunities and who is asked to complete the work for free. At many institutions men are more likely to hold paid service positions than women, while women complete higher rates of service, but are not paid or given perks (e.g., course release). In addition, there are examples of women in leadership asking for support and not given it, and then later it is offered to a man who took over that same position. Clearly, inequities persist.
  • Provide informal and formal opportunities to provide feedback and raise concerns without fear of retaliation. This can come in anonymous feedback, through ombudspersons (i.e., person appointed to investigate individual’s experiences of inequity), and policy change.
  • Develop mentorship opportunities on how to navigate academia and pay mentors and mentees to participate in these opportunities. Paying can be monetary and/or can be in other service or course releases.
  • Create fellowships for what women researchers and scientists are already doing and pay them for their mentoring and support their research. Fellowship and funding opportunities from institutions should reward and incentivize good mentorship.
  • Promote women to leadership positions and pay them the same as their predecessors if not more (inflation is quite high in most of the world, so these raisers should happen regardless). There are multiple examples of women being paid less for taking over the same position than when a man held that position.
  • Be transparent about everything. Create a policy of transparency around merit raises and promotion. Create a policy of transparency about leadership positions. Currently, my department is searching for a new chair, and the lack of transparency has led to inequity in who is asked to hold the position.
  • Create a service equity dashboard so service loads are known and fully transparent to all researchers. This will allow researchers to monitor services loads through a transparency portal. This means that instead of leadership requesting service from the same pool of people who are “good” at it but already overloaded, leadership can ask the people who are not providing as much service to complete new needed service tasks.
  • Salary loss compensation for researchers who extend promotion time due to taking family leave.

These are important steps forward to support women in science, but much more is needed to reach equity.

 

NB this blog has been peer-reviewed

References

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