The cost of gender gap in science by Roberta Fulci

“What if, once diversity is attained in an institute, standards dropped? I don’t want to be hired at the cost of reducing the standards”.

7th Heidelberg Laureate Forum
7th Heidelberg Laureate Forum 2019, Heidelberg, Germany, Picture/Credit: Christian Flemming/HLF Friday, 27/09/2019, SAP St. Leon Rot Panel The Gender Gap in Science

One month after I heard these words, they continue to come up to my mind. The girl who uttered them was one of the two hundred students and young researchers selected from all over the world to take part to this year’s Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF). Joining HLF means having the opportunity to spend a whole week in Heidelberg to attend lectures of the brightest mathematicians and computer scientist in the world. There are many social occasions too: you can find yourself hanging around with a Fields medalist, having dinner at the same table as one of the creators of the web, chatting with the latest Turing award while on a boat trip on the Nekar river.

On the last day of HLF this year, a panel about gender gap in science took place, during which the Gender Gap in Science Project was presented by Marie-Francoise Roy, coordinator of the project. The whole discussion can be watched here. The choice of speaking about gender balance at HLF is not surprising, for together with climate change – which was also debated during HLF – gender gap is perhaps the most urgent issue inside the scientific community. In fact, both themes were addressed during HLF opening ceremony as well. The gender gap topic was still hotter for a very disturbing reason: of the 23 laureates attending HLF this year, not one was a woman – not certainly due to a poor organization. Why then?

One female computer scientist, Barbara Liskov, was meant to be there, but accidently had to cancel her participation shortly before. Laureates attending HLF must have received, at some point of their careers, one of the following prizes: Fields Medal or Abel Prize for mathematics; Turing Award, Nevanlinna Prize or ACM Prize for Computing for computer science. The total number of people who ever received such honors is 171. How many women? Seven. Well, six, if we consider that Maryam Mirzakhani – the only female Fields medalist ever – died two years ago. Last year Karen Uhlenbeck was the first woman ever to be awarded the Abel Prize. So, no surprise we didn’t have any female laureate this year at HLF: they can be counted on fingers – literally.

But why, even today, so few women receive the greatest acknowledgements in maths and computer science? One of the reasons was pointed out during the opening ceremony by Cherri Pancake, president of ACM, one of the institutions delivering such prestigious prizes: women are simply not nominated by their colleagues. For you to be a candidate for receiving one of those awards, someone must nominate you. And a woman is nominated once every five or six years.

opening ceremony

So, that’s were we stand when the panel starts at HLF: a top-level gathering of experienced brilliant scientists and promising students, well aware of a huge gender unbalance in their own area, trying to find a solution. After an introduction given by the invited speakers, the audience added dozens of questions and comments, as eye-opening as those coming from the seven panelists. Good news: female participation to HLF increased from 20% in 2012 to 40% in 2019, as the moderator Ragni Piene from University of Oslo happily observed. Both men and women raised their hands, offering points of view from different parts of the planet:

• In many african countries ladies are just supposed to raise children and being housewives. In remote areas, it’s just part of the culture!

• Is there a line that we should not pass to be sure not to step on culture?

• Gender gap initiatives, in universities, often fall apart as soon as the leader leaves. How do we make them last?

• How about women-only positions? They can that have a reverse-effect…

Many efforts are being made to balance male and female presence in science. The first step is assessing the situation: measuring the gap is precisely one the goals of the Gender Gap in Science Project. Marie-Francoise Roy showed graphs: it was clear at first glance that women are under-represented in science all over the world. The panel was also a valuable time to get to know lots of different initiatives thanks to Jessica Carter, from University of Southern Denmark, such as EQUAL-IST, FESTA or LERU.

The first question from the audience came from one of the laureates, Vinton Cerf, and was a very solid one:

• What, in your experience, works?

Answering was apparently not easy. Marie-Francoise Roy pointed out what does not work: adjusting committees with more women. In this way women, who are fewer in academia, are loaded with extra-work and have less time to do research and publish. Furthermore, it has been observed that women do not hire women more easily than men do.

What does work, said Jessica Carter, is changing the way of advertising scientific courses: make clear there are no prerequisites other than high school programs and avoid a technical language. This will encourage everyone to apply. The Gender Gap in Science Project, Professor Roy added, will build a “good practices” database, that may be enriched with new experiences to distribute advice, so people from everywhere can focus on what to do.

Trying to create a more balanced research environment is a collective responsibility, as was said repeatedly. Working in that direction does not necessarily mean having personally suffered from gender biased behaviour. Anna Wienhard, who is affiliated to Heidelberg University and spoke at the panel from Berkeley via Skype, has never experienced biased decisions personally, but is involved in many different initiatives to address gender gap, like summer workshops for high school students in Princeton. Hopefully, men should work for the same goal too, as shown by Fernando Chirigati from New York University: “women are simply not given the same opportunity to being interested in science as men are.” He grew up in Brazil: “girls would get dolls as gifts, and were expected to know how to cook and help their mothers in the kitchen. Boys would get building blocks, Lego, and even computers”. This is a long-standing problem everywhere. Things are (slowly) changing, but it will take time.

Another crucial point is spreading the word about opening positions and try to reach women, who, apparently, in many cases need to be persuaded they are reliable candidates. Margo Seltzer from the university of British Columbia, during her talk, gave a surprising piece of advice for those who wish to make bias come to the surface in university hiring policies:

• Ask your colleagues three names of brilliant candidates. They’ll give you three names.
• Tell your colleagues you are particularly interested in candidates from under-represented groups. Might you have someone to suggest?
• It takes them a while, but they will then give you three more names of diverse candidates.
• Ask them to rank all six candidates.

The final ranking NEVER shows that the second set of three are, in fact, ranked below the first three.

We should be aware of our own implicit bias too (we all have some): this paper, mentioned by Jessica Carter, addresses this fundamental issue, and here, Margo Seltzer said, you can take many surprising tests.

“We have been talking a lot about hiring, but education should be at the center of the debate as well”, said Anna Vasilchenko from University of Newcastle. She used to be a journalist and chose to become a researcher after attending HLF a few years ago. A conversation with the Fields medalist Manjul Bhargava about the beauty of math had a huge impact on her life, making her feel she could make a difference. She is currently doing research on the use of technology for educational purposes.

During her talk, Jessica Carter quoted the anthropologist Cathrine Hasse about Physics students in Copenhagen:

Female students and young researchers feel they do not “belong” in the academic setting.

This conclusion catches the heart of the problem. It seems precisely the root of everything that was said during the panel, and is perfectly mirrored by that simple, chrystal clear sentence, said by an Indian worried girl, that struck me more than everything: “I don’t want to be hired at the cost of reducing the standards”.

Would anyone want that?

Yet, a man would simply never need to say such words. “People come back changed after an experience were they are a minority for the first time, such as Grace Hopper celebration,” said Margo Seltzer. “Everyone should experience being a minority at least once”. This explains a lot, because in our society women are obviously not a minority. Giving women access to science is certainly a way of empowering them, as the stories collected by Ochieng’ Ogodo make clear on SciDevNet. But it is also a way of empowering science: of all areas, research is probably the one where diversity should be valued most.

Roberta Fulci is a science journalist with a background in mathematics. She is editor and host at Radio3Scienza, RAI – Radio3, on the Italian national public radio. She co-authored a children’s book about female scientists: Ragazze con i numeri. Storie, passioni e sogni di 15 scienziate (Editoriale Scienza, 2018, with Vichi De Marchi), also in press in Spain, Polland and Corea. She is a contributor for ilTascabile.

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