Leonie Nüßer, RWTH Aachen University; David Saunders, Shell International B.V.; and Jennifer Lynch, SETAC

Gender bias and unequal opportunity are well documented in science and research and have the potential to affect careers and scientific innovation. Gender bias infiltrates publishing, derails promotions and career development, reduces the number of role models for young researchers and disrupts research design. A plethora of research has demonstrated how quality and innovation in science greatly benefits from a diverse workforce, while the loss of diversity can have consequences for scientific progress.

For the special session held at the SETAC Europe 29th Annual Meeting in Helsinki, Finland, we invited speakers from within our community and the Finnish Environmental Institute to share their expert knowledge on different aspects of gender equality that aimed to further discussion within our field and change the prevailing culture and norms in scientific research. The attendance and response during this session were overwhelmingly positive with the room at more than 100% capacity and several standing ovations during presentations and subsequent discussions.

The presenters highlighted different areas where bias against female researchers can influence women’s decisions and success in their careers. Helena Valve, Finnish Environment Institute, presented good practices that aid to remove discriminative barriers in academia and research projects that have been developed in the Baltic Gender project (Horizon 2020). Different measures can be taken that ensure an equal representation of women and men in leadership positions, which will improve decision-making processes and, through the inclusion of diverse competences, enhance research output. Gender awareness training for faculty members and especially deciders in recruitment aids to achieve equal representation of women in science. The complete document detailing all identified best practices is free to access.

Jennifer Lynch, SETAC, presented an overview of gender bias in publishing: How bias effects authors, reviewers and citations. She found the data show that men dominate scientific production in nearly every country. Drilling down to discern why male authorship is so dominant was far more complex, but an analysis of commissioned articles at Nature and Science showed that women wrote just 3.8% of earth and environmental science articles, although representing 20% of the discipline at the time. The same reluctance to invite women to review articles is evident not only in publishing at large, but at the SETAC journals. Lynch reviewed initiatives underway at SETAC to diversify author, reviewer and editor pools, which include introducing double-blind peer review, requiring authors to consider diversity when recommending reviewers, and actively focusing on developing boards that are more representative of the society.

In her presentation on old and new faces of gender bias, Miriam Diamond, University of Toronto, highlighted different areas in research and especially academia where gender parity is not reached. Her graph on the measure of bias and stress during the development of her career sparked spontaneous sympathy and acknowledgement from the audience and demonstrated the need of strong and outspoken female role models. Diamond outlined the funding gaps, with only between 24–30% of the grants going to women and at a disproportional amount dollar for dollar, before turning her attention to the 18% average pay gap between men and women in the sciences. With her limited time, she was also able to discuss “the leaky faucet,” or why women are more likely to drop out of the sciences than men, and gender harassment. She did end the talk with positive initiatives in place at her university and elsewhere that are designed to support inclusion and rectify these major and systemic issues.

Main Conclusions

The presentations and personal experiences shared by the audience showed that there remain many areas that need to be improved in order to reach gender equality in science and research.

The fact remains that women are underrepresented in higher posts. Structural problems determine that change is not easy to achieve. There exist multiple approaches to address certain issues:

  • Implementing best practices for promoting equality in research organizations, for example, setting parity benchmarks during selection processes for recruitment and funding and training staff on capacity building
  • Mentoring programs aid women in career building, including bottom-up networking and top-down best practices
  • Implementing family friendly policies, such as “stopping the clock” for tenure during maternity leave
  • Adopting a double-blind peer review process in publishing and grant-funding
  • Becoming more aware of our own biases and working to correct them

It is important that these topics and tools are discussed not only by individuals and groups but to ensure that there is a consensus within our community to eliminate existing bias. Here it is important that the responsibility for change does not rely solely on the actions of women but should rather be the collective effort of the whole community. One important step in this change is the willingness and open-mindedness of all to acknowledge remaining structures that foster inequality.

This was the first special session on the topic of gender equality at a SETAC Europe annual meeting. After the session, we received a strong mandate from the audience to continue with a follow up session, which is planned to take place at the SETAC Europe 30th Annual Meeting from 3–7 May 2020 in Dublin, Ireland.

Authors’ contact information: leonie.nuesser@bio5.rwth-aachen.de, David.Saunders2@shell.com and jen.lynch@setac.org

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