Webinar Report: Removing barriers for women in science

How are researchers supporting their early-career colleagues?

Moderator: Melissa Kapulu, postdoctoral researcher, KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme and member of the eLife Early-Career Advisory Group.

Speakers: Jessica Wade, postdoctoral researcher, Imperial College London; Kui Muraya, postdoctoral social scientist, KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programmes; Dina Alsharkawy, researcher, Suez Canal University; and Benjamin Apraku Gyampoh, lecturer, Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.

Implementing measures to support female scientists has benefits for researchers of all genders. Yet a number of challenges remain before equality becomes ingrained into scientific practice.

Problems transcend national borders

When Jessica Wade took part in a program called Hidden No More that brought 48 women from across the world to look at initiatives to support women in science, she learnt that every country in the world faces similar issues. “Most of it comes down to the stereotypes and biases [about women] that pervade through all of our societies”. Dina Alsharkawy finds that in the Middle East there’s an expectation for women “to be in the kitchen, not to be in the lab”. One way she tries to overcome this is by encouraging the students in her lab to focus on their future and their education, regardless of their ultimate career aims.

Mentors and advocates are crucial

Personal support like Alsharkawy offers is often crucial to encouraging early-career researchers to persevere with a scientific career. “I cannot underscore enough the importance of good mentorship and the role it has played in my career path”, says Kui Muraya. Advocates are also important: “that person who’s cheering you on, […] who’s putting your name forward for talks”. After benefiting from the support of many people both personally and professionally, Muraya now informally mentors younger women. However, she hopes that one day her institution will introduce a formal mentoring structure.

We are all individuals

Women are not a homogenous group. Benjamin Gyampoh, who implemented strategies for ensuring a 50:50 gender ratio in the participants of the CIRCLE fellow program, found that “when we put in general interventions for every researcher it doesn’t work”. Muraya agrees that intersectionality needs to be taken into account. “If we achieve gender parity […] but consciously or unconsciously have excluded women with caring responsibilities, have we achieved the goal?” she asks.

Do we need new power structures?

Gaining the support of institutions and funders is crucial to making research inclusive. “One of the potential dangers of focusing on gender parity is that it sometimes can become a tick-box exercise”, states Muraya. This can mean that “we don’t really challenge the underlying power structures that result in this inequality in the first place”. As part of this, Wade suggests, “we need to get to a situation where we evaluate people and their appropriateness for a role based on their passion and drive and potential capabilities".

Time to be a role model.

“We have enough role models”, says Gyampoh. The question is “whether we have enough visible role models”. Visibility can come through highlighting female scientists on Wikipedia, supporting and advocating for colleagues, or bringing schoolchildren into the lab to show that scientists are ‘normal people’. Every early-career researcher can do their part. As Alsharkawy phrases it: “you can be a role model. You have the seeds inside you, you just have to water them.”

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