Call for a new age in science

No scientific evidence suggests that women are intellectually inferior to men, so the peer-review processes that overwhelmingly benefit men are scientifically flawed

Professor Fabienne Mackay, University of Melbourne

Professor Fabienne Mackay

Published 4 March 2020

Forging a gender equal world in medical science is a complex task.

As a leader, it is difficult to repair years of damage done by the system to women researchers.

The greatest inequity exists in the recruitment and promotion of women in research. Picture: Getty Images

However, on the eve of International Women’s Day – when we celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness against bias and take action for equality – I call for change.

It is time for a new age in science, biomedicine and medical research – we need to redress the existing inequality, rather than simply give cursory attention to the issue.

As scientists, no one would question the significance of the data that shows dramatically different promotion trajectories for men versus woman, inferior grant and fellowship outcomes for women versus men, and widely divergent recognition of the scientific outputs of the two sexes by research academies.

Over the recent decades we have, perhaps made it to the metaphorical base-camp – an achievement in itself.

However, from whatever perspective you take, there is still our enormous mountain to climb.

The greatest inequity exists in the recruitment and promotion of women in research.

At face value, male applicants often appear to have a superior curriculum vitae, particularly if the section on ‘relative to opportunity’ is overlooked, as it so often is.

We must tackle this if women are to be judged fairly in the advancement stakes.

In Australia, these issues have been brought sharply into focus with the recent funding round through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

The paucity of women at senior levels in research will not change unless we actively implement change. PIcture: Getty Images

New changes with NHMRC were implemented in 2019 and recent results for the first round of the most competitive award, named Investigator Grants, showed an overwhelmingly high success rate for men compared to women at the more senior level of this award; made worse by the fact that fewer women applied at that senior level than men.

I know NHMRC, in particular CEO Professor Anne Kelso, is very concerned by the issue and working very hard to address it.

This sobering result for Australian female researchers will further hinder our ability to recruit and promote funded women to senior levels.

In part, it reflects societal values, which sees women underpaid and under-recognised.

A consistent failure of female peers to be promoted establishes a vicious cycle whereby women undervalue their own worth.

So, what are the solutions?

I believe, the academic leaders of our universities and institutes have the responsibility to rectify this, through active identification of high-performing women (and men) and encouragement to seek promotion.

Collectively, women also need to be more forthright in the promotion stakes and put themselves forward earlier.

With my senior staff, we have decided to stop at the onset the ineluctability of this situation by providing support to our best emerging female research stars, in the form of a ‘pair of hands’ in the laboratory for up to two years while experiencing a career disruption.

Existing research leaders must actively identify their future women research leaders. Picture: Getty Images

We also provide support for women invited to present their work at a conference and bring their children.

For Australian medical research, the paucity of women at senior levels in research will not change unless we actively implement change, starting with more equitable research funding outcomes.

This could be achieved by ranking all grant applicants based on the quality of their research, then separating genders and applying the same success rate to each.

Based on history, the overall average score for women will likely be lower than that of men, but I would argue this reflects unconscious gender bias and inadequate weighting for diminished career opportunity rather than lesser quality applications.

This model will ensure research opportunities for greater numbers of women and provide enduring leadership and inspiration for future generations of women scientists.

At a personal level, one critical aspect for my career development was the guidance from outstanding mentors, who were progressive by the standard of the day (and would still be regarded as progressive in many institutions).

These men encouraged and supported me, undeterred by my gender or ‘biological responsibilities’, able to see my potential and provide me with pathways to achieve it.

These pathways came in the form of strong collaborations, which continued during my pregnancy and maternity leave, partially offsetting the inevitable gap in productivity.

Women also need to be more forthright in the promotion stakes. Picture: Getty Images

They also manifested with repeated opportunities to present my work at international conferences, maintaining my visibility in the field.

This was largely possible as my partner also worked in immunology, and we shared many meetings.

For women without that luxury, provision must be made for additional funding to support childcare, enabling travel and presentations.

It is incumbent on existing research leaders to actively identify their future women research leaders and provide opportunities for ongoing engagement and research outputs during periods of personal leave.

In the absence of such pro-active approaches, the status quo will be maintained.

Professor Fabienne Mackay’s article Not from Venus, not from Mars, all equally Superstars was recently internationally published Nature magazine.

Banner: Getty Images

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