Reflections following the women in science conference

Last week I attended the Association for Women in the Sciences conference. The triennial meeting happened to be in Auckland this year, so I thought it was a great opportunity to head along and hear from a wide range of women in science. Here are a few things that stood out, as well as some thoughts that came to mind during the meeting.girlboss


My favourite talk of the meeting was from Alexia Hilbertidou, founder of GirlBoss New Zealand. Alexia was the second speaker (following the wonderful Jean Fleming) in a session reflecting on change over time in the role of women in science in New Zealand. I’ve rarely seen speakers with such commanding stage presence and passion, and it was hard to believe that 18 year old Alexia has not long finished high school. Feeling isolated as the only girl in her Digital Tech and Physics classes, Alexia was motivated to form a network of young women connected through their love of science and tech. Now with over 8000 members nationwide, Alexia and her team organise leadership workshops and other initiatives aimed at empowering young women to succeed in STEM.

Alexia has a vision for New Zealand to become the first to close the gender gap in science. In another talk at AWIS we heard from Natasha Lewis from the Ministry for Women, who reported a recent study into the 12% pay gap between women and men in the science sector.  Alexia’s appeal to close the gap might sound like a lofty idea, but seriously, this inspiring woman has already achieved so much at 18. There’s hope!

women pay gap

Natasha Lewis (Ministry for Women) opening talk slide at AWIS 2017

It’s sometimes hard to know how we can affect change to improve diversity in science and promote kindness in our workplaces. One way you can help out is to put your name forward to volunteer, mentor and sponsor for future GirlBoss events. There are lots of women doing great science in New Zealand but we need to be visible to young women coming up the ranks so that they know they have a place among us.

Event sponsorship policies (increasing event diversity)

I was really interested to hear from Kate Hannah and Siouxsie Wiles of Te Punaha Matatini, outline their policy for sponsoring events. Before agreeing to sponsor an event they have clear guidelines for how they expect events to be organised. These include ensuring conferences are both gender and culturally diverse among keynote speakers and clear advertisement of an anti-harassment policy on the event website. Their website links to a very helpful resource which offers lots of fantastic examples of how conference organisers can make their meetings more diverse. All conference organisers in NZ should check this out!

Here are some of my favourite suggestions for organising great meetings:

  • Having the option for delegates to pay a little more to help sponsor attendance for underrepresented groups
  • Seek sponsorship to support scholarships for underrepresented groups to attend (could you include a grant for supporting women to bring a support person to do childcaring while at the meeting?)
  • Don’t realise your speaker lineup is 100% white male, ask a couple of women to get involved last minute and then be surprised/blame them when they decline
  • Display a code of conduct for your event predominantly on your website, mention it at the start of the event and make people agree to take part (e.g. when buying tickets).
  • Talk to tangata whenua early on in event organisation to ask them to be involved (e.g. welcome address, karakia etc.)
  • Train your organising committee on your code of conduct, get someone to keep an eye on the Twitter feed and have someone listening in to each talk so they can respond to any concerns.
  • Have a breastfeeding room. Not a public bathroom! Somewhere private with an electrical outlet. Even better would be a room with a sink to wash out bottles and a fridge to store milk (if you really want to go the extra mile!)
  • Have gender-neutral bathrooms

Getting allies to speak up against sexism

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we can get male allies to support us in calling out sexism (and racism, transphobia etc). A column in the New York Times last week by the fabulous Lindy West made a call to male allies to loudly call out sexism when they hear it, and not meekly stand by while women deal with further abuse when standing up for themselves. It’s not easy to stand up against sexism and risk being ostracized by friends, but it’s not enough to just not take part in the conservation or ignore it.

Ways to tackle discrimination and microaggressions in the workplace were discussed at the AWIS meeting. For younger women, particularly in situations where there is a power issue at play, it might be a good idea to find a trusted senior person to talk to. Building a support network to be able to vent after a buildup of daily microaggressions can also be useful for sharing stories and building strength. A great suggestion for responding to offensive comments immediately was to say ‘I can’t believe you just said that out loud’. This calls attention to the comment without directly telling them they’re being inappropriate, but (hopefully) making them think about what they said.

Mobility issues for ECRs

We talked a bit at AWIS about the leaky pipeline (or perhaps more accurately described as broken plumbing) and issues with retaining women in science. Given my precarious position as a postdoc on a fixed term contract, this discussion resonated with me a lot.

I think one of the many factors affecting the leaky pipeline is the expectation for postdocs to head abroad (and often move multiple times to different countries) to have a successful career in academia. Of course going abroad for a postdoc is hugely beneficial in terms of increased collaboration opportunities and learning new skills, as well as being personally beneficial by increasing cultural awareness. However, although issues with mobility can affect anyone,  the expectation to move abroad can be particularly limiting to women. This is especially so for women who are starting postdocs at the same time as considering having kids.

Although I did go overseas for one year to do a postdoc in Singapore, I made the decision to end my contract at least one year earlier than intended to return to the same lab that I did my PhD in. My former supervisor had just won a big grant that we’d been working on for years, on which I was the named postdoc. Moving home to NZ seemed sensible for several reasons, including that my partner didn’t find work in Singapore, therefore putting strain on us financially and him personally (being my unpaid lab slave eventually wore thin). We also wanted to return home to start a family close to our support network. I’m quite certain this has been frowned upon by colleagues, but we made the decision that worked best for us as a unit, and I don’t think my research output will be negatively affected by this choice (and I’m lucky that I had that choice anyway!). Surely the experiences picked up from doing longer term postdocs could be almost equally acquired from doing short term lab visits, training workshops and attending international conferences?

A recent article in eLIFE that discusses issues with mobility during postdoc years can be accessed freely here.

Thanks to the organisers of AWIS for a thought provoking and inspiring meeting!