Talking Points: Jess Wade on gender bias in science

Tackling gender inequalities in science needs to start in school.

Jess Wade (@jesswade), a research fellow in physics at Imperial College, discusses how universities can tackle bias and discrimination against women, how science is better when it is done by diverse teams, differences between physics and the life sciences and medicine, and her efforts to make Wikipedia more inclusive.

Jess Wade

Have you ever experienced gender discrimination?

Most of the time, gender bias happens in subtle ways. It might be the way people overlook you in professional environments, repeat your ideas without giving you credit, or just don't take your technical skill very seriously. I remember one incident very clearly: I was invited to a nanoscience conference were all the keynote speakers were men. When I pointed this out, the organisers told me that they noticed too, and if I wanted to help, we could invite more women speakers. After I'd invited my women colleagues, it turned out that they'd put all our talks into a special session on "women in materials science", which had no financial support, occurred at the same time as the main session, and was held in a tiny meeting room. It was totally degrading, and I remember thinking that I never want to be like the people who organized this conference. I think we can use negative experiences to become better scientists, because you learn what behaviour to avoid when you get into a leadership position.

Overall, it could have been much worse: and people from multiple marginalised groups (for example, women of colour in physics and engineering) experience considerably more discrimination on a daily basis. I recognise that I'm immensely privileged. And I've tried to use this privilege to make it fairer and more equal for other people. So, while I've experienced a few little things, I can deal with them and fight them, and then use that frustration to try and make academia better.

What inspired you to become involved in efforts to improve gender diversity in STEM?

During my undergraduate physics degree, I started to realise how lucky I was to have had such supportive parents and schoolteachers. I realised that not everyone had the same quality of teaching, or access to that same support net. And I guess that really annoyed me. I wanted to do something about it because I genuinely believe that science is better when it's done by diverse teams: they're more fun to work with, they're more creative, they're more impactful, and the science is more likely to have benefit society.

What are the main challenges women face in STEM?

Historically, academic careers hasn't been very compatible with having caring responsibilities (for example children or looking after elderly parents), which are often taken on by women. Moreover, systemic bias is an ongoing problem. Women (and people of colour) are less likely to get a big research grant or a fellowship, and they are less likely to be nominated for an award, and their papers are less likely to be accepted or cited in leading journals. Although academia knows this – and the data backs it up – we still use grants, awards, and citations as a proxy for scientific excellence. These figures of merit ultimately determine whether someone becomes a professor. It's like we have this really broken system that perpetuates this privilege: the more privileged you are, the more opportunities you'll get, and those opportunities make you even more privileged. I don't understand how scientists and engineers have been okay with it for so long.

What could be done about getting girls interested in science and able to pursue science at schools?

I don't think it's necessarily about getting people interested – girls are already interested. It's more about making students aware of the different careers in science (and physics) and getting parents and teachers on board. We also need to update our curricula so that they're more inclusive and better reflect the diverse communities being taught. Physics is fascinating, it enables so many critical technologies, and it is important that this is reflected in what we teach. If you have no idea about the career prospects in that subject, and your teacher doesn't seem to like it either, then why would you choose it? At the moment, we don't pay or value teachers enough, and it is not an attractive career for our best graduates.

How can schools and academic institutes better support and keep women in STEM?

Universities need to make sure that there's access to affordable childcare on campus. Conference organisers should cover this too and provide grants for people with caring responsibilities. We should campaign to make sure core working hours align with school timetables, accommodate for school holidays, and work to eliminate the idea that all good collaborations must start in a pub. The application process – be it for grants, promotions, fellowships or bursaries – should be easy to understand, and decision making transparent. What do you need to do; who do you need to speak to; when do you need to make that application; who should be your cheerleader or your supporter?

It's not enough to just have, say, a training programme that teaches women scientists to be more like 'successful' men. We need to be really thinking about why we are losing women scientists, and what we can do to keep them. That may vary from institution to institution. Universities should also be upfront about their policies against bullying and sexual harassment, and what they are doing to tackle such issues.

What needs to be done to achieve gender parity? What changes would you like to see now and what would you like to see happen in the next year see?

Every institution should listen to the concerns and issues of the people and act upon it. There should also be a collective effort to recognise that women and early career researchers have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, or that researchers of colour have recently been expected to focus considerable attention on speaking about/tackling racial inequality.

I also think that we can make it possible for people to have exciting research careers without the expectation to travel around the world, be it for conferences or to pursue a degree. I find it a rather old-school idea that you have to do a postdoc in a different country to where you got your PhD, but you then have to go and start your academic career somewhere else again. It puts many people at a disadvantage – some may feel a strong sense of belonging to their local community, others cannot unite these demands with having a family. Actions like this don't just make academia a more inclusive place for women, but also just a better place for everyone.

Can you tell us about your work on Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is an incredibly important website. The world's only free, reliable, non-partisan and up-to-date platform for sharing knowledge. Unfortunately, the diversity of people who contribute to Wikipedia (the editors) doesn't reflect the diversity of people who rely on it, and certain topics are very underrepresented. For example, women, people of colour, and anything to do with the Global South is pretty poorly documented. So, in 2018, I decided that I would do something to change that. I started writing – and encouraging others to write – Wikipedia biographies about the scientific contributions of women and people of colour. So far I've written over 1,700 biographies. Wikipedia's a better place because of it.

The life sciences and medicine are less male dominated than physics: is there anything physics could learn from the life sciences and medicine, and vice versa?

Actually, I think life sciences and physics have exactly the same issues. In the life sciences, there may be more women at undergraduate level, or maybe even in junior positions, but when you look at higher positions in both academia and non-academic companies, they are taken by men. We all have work to do.

Careers in medicine are popular at school, and therefore, biology and chemistry A-Levels (both a requirement to study medicine) are pretty gender balanced. Young women realise that these subjects are actually interesting, and study chemistry or biology at university. But because physics isn't required for medicine at university, it's only chosen by hardcore physics enthusiasts or aspiring engineers. I reckon if we made physics A-Level a requirement for a medical degree, it too would become more gender balanced at undergraduate level. Bigger picture wise, we need to tackle gender stereotypes across society, and better support our teachers.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The only one thing I would add is that we all get annoyed by this stuff. But we all have a responsibility to change it. And I think that no matter what stage you're at, whether you're an undergraduate or graduate student or a postdoc or a professor, you have a huge capacity to make the environment around you – and the discipline you work in – more inclusive, and I wish that people would step up and do it more often.

Jess Wade was interviewed by Helga Groll, Associate Features Editor, eLife.