A theme issue published on 9 February in The Lancet has kicked off a new self-proclaimed commitment by the journal to publish relevant research on advancing women in science, medicine, and global health. As the introduction to the issue states, “Gender equity is not only a matter of justice and rights, it is crucial for producing the best research and providing the best care to patients.”
The journal itself points out that the academic publishing system is gendered and evidence suggests women continue to be vastly under-represented in author, reviewer, and editorial positions across scientific and medical journals (1). Furthermore, women in academia and science, as well as many other industries, face numerous issues from authorship inequity to sexual harassment.
In one perspective in the series, Prof Cordelia Fine and Dr Victor Sojo from the University of Melbourne in Australia discuss the value women bring to the workplace and how “female empowerment is smart for business” (2). Another study by Dr Jiesi Guo and colleagues from the Australian Catholic University in Sydney calls to attention the underrepresentation of women in STEM (3). In particular, the researchers examined factors, such as cultural factors and parental occupation, influencing the interest of adolescent girls in sciences. They found that gender stereotypes and socioeconomic status have a significant impact on girls’ interest in science and should, therefore, be considered in campaigns to direct girls toward STEM fields.
Of late, notable attempts have been made to ensure more female representation in scientific fields. However, have these recent efforts been a boon or a bane for women? It has become increasingly evident that endeavours to promote women into academia are often ineffective and at worst, may even backfire. A recent study (not part of the series) authored by Pierre Deschamps, an economist at the Paris Institute for Political Studies (LIEPP), demonstrated that attempts to promote gender equality in science by setting quotas have, in fact, led to fewer female committee members. The analysis, based on the decisions in 455 hiring committees at three institutions in France found that those adhering to the quota were significantly less likely to hire women. Deschamps suggests this could be retaliation from men who are unhappy about the policy.
The struggles of women often go beyond what hiring quotas can ― or in the above case, cannot ― overcome. Fortunately, many women are now speaking out. For example, the #MeToo movement has brought to the fore ― and into the media ― some of the most serious issues facing women, including female scientists. Prof BethAnn McLaughlin, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in Nashville, USA, has been leading the battle in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) against those she refers to as “harassholes.” She is the creator of the MeTooSTEM.com website where women in STEM can anonymously post their experiences of harassment and receive support.
One article in The Lancet series, written by medical journalist Becky McCall, discusses what the author refers to as a “rapid linguistic evolution is symptomatic of a meteoric rise in online activities that support women speaking openly about their experiences of sexual harassment, especially in the workplace”(4). In other words, a global movement ― welcomed by many ― towards speaking up against the “institutionalisation of sexual harassment” and publicly naming and shaming offenders.
To date, the contributions of women to science are indisputable, but historically, not always fully recognised (5). Furthermore, a lack of visible female role models adds to a reduced sense of belonging and thus, less retention of women in STEM fields (6). Hopefully, by continuing to highlight the important contributions of women in science, placing more female role models in the spotlight, and promoting gender diversity in scientific fields ― as well as confronting harassment and gender bias― will lead to less gender-based discrimination and further increases in female representation.
(1) Clark J and Horton R. What is The Lancet doing about gender and diversity? The Lancet (2019). DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30289-2
(2) Fine, C. and Sojo, V. Women’s value: beyond the business case for diversity and inclusion. The Lancet (2019). DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30165-5
(3) Guo, J. et al. Countries, parental occupation, and girls’ interest in science. The Lancet (2019). DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30210-7
(4) McCall, B. Taking the battle against sexual harassment in global academia online. The Lancet (2019). DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30314-9
(5) Dung, S.K. et al. Illuminating Women’s Hidden Contribution to Historical Theoretical Population Genetics. Genetics (2019). DOI: 10.1534/genetics.118.301277
(6) Cheryan, S. et al. Why are some STEM fields more gender balanced than others? Psychological Bulletin (2017). DOI: 10.1037/bul0000052