Practical policies can combat gender inequality

By | July 18, 2021

How can science solve the problem of gender inequality? This is an ongoing issue that has been highlighted again by controversy over recent comments by Nobel laureate Tim Hunt about his “trouble with girls?”

The problem in biomedical research was clearly demonstrated to me in 2009, just before I became director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia. I chaired my first meeting of senior academic staff and despite the high-profile female director – Susan Corey – for more than a decade none of the 20 department heads or professors in the room were women.

I pledged to improve the gender balance, and after five years, I think we’ve made some progress. Now we have four female professors or department heads. That’s hardly a cause for wild celebration, but considering we’ve started from such a sad premise it’s a start.

So what did we do? Simply, we asked those affected – women in the postdoctoral period – for their thoughts.

For our institution, some of the simplest changes include steps to ensure that all important meetings are held within school hours, to ensure that researchers with child care duties can participate.

We have also set up a dedicated office with hot-desk as well as a room in which younger children can play and older children can do homework or watch TV under the supervision of their parents.

And we have designated a separate room to allow women to breastfeed their babies or express milk. The idea of ​​expressing milk in women’s toilets or sick rooms – as was done before – seems as unreasonable as a researcher making coffee there.

what else? We demand that at least half of the speakers in all conferences and workshops organized by the Institute be women. And we created a gender-equality committee with men and women to monitor the implementation of policies, collect data on progress, and challenge us with new ideas.

That was the easy stuff. Some steps require more thought, larger investment and time. The tendency to postpone scientific independence over the past 30 years by researchers working long hours as postdocs is generally problematic, but especially difficult for many women, as they are in the career-defining years of childbearing. overlap with the years.

Female postdocs have been placed in an aggressive position: take some time off and leave their productivity at nearly zero for a period, or defer kids in the hope of getting a faculty position.

So we deliberately started hiring faculty members as postdocs at a young age, in their early to mid-thirties, perhaps after a period of 2-4 years. It provides women with resources they can use (postdocs, research assistants and students of their own) should they take time off from full-time work to raise and care for children.

For women who have children during their postdoc, we provide technical support, which is paid for by the institute, to ensure that their projects go ahead during maternity leave.

We started a 5-year, Aus $1.25-million (US$96,000) fellowship to support a female laboratory chief who can spend the money she wants. It can pay for salaries, for example, or for consumable expenses.

And, given that the high cost of child care can deter women from returning to work, the institute helps pay for it—$$ each year for female postdocs and lab heads with pre-school-age children. up to 15,000. Yes, men pay for child care too, but we have an excess of male lab heads, and we can’t do it for everyone.

We also pay our female scientists to take children and caregivers to academic conferences here and abroad. It can cost hundreds or sometimes a few thousand dollars, but we think presenting in meetings is important for career development. We also pay for ‘family rooms’ at local conferences to allow researchers to listen to conversations with their children – which is good for both men and women.

We want to do more. We are planning an on-site child care center and new fellowships to support women returning after extended leave. And we’re looking at making the lab-head role more flexible. Can this be done as part of a job, for example, with two faculty members splitting supervisory responsibilities, each working three days a week?

We know these moves have made a difference. Some are expensive, but the ‘my-institute-has-no-money’ argument is rarely a good excuse for inaction. Each institution has some discretionary funding and may choose to spend it in these ways rather than say on an overly generous recruitment package for well-established (usually male) scientists.

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