Reflecting on International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Today – February 11th – is the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day not only to celebrate those who have managed to study science and forged their careers within it, but to focus minds on how to open up science to many more girls around the world. In some parts of the world education of any sort for girls is hard fought for, as Malala has made so manifest, but in others – including much of the western world – science education is available but subtly discouraged. For a 10 year old girl to be told, at a school in my own home city Cambridge, that she does ‘maths like a boy’ beggars belief, quite apart from the fact I don’t actually know what it means. It would seem to amount to ‘no trespassing into the maths arena: your chromosomes are wrong’. (This was a tale told to me by a professorial colleague about her god-daughter.)

As the UN says on its website

Science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals’.

We are losing the talent of many; we are losing the diversity of viewpoints by excluding women from the science agenda. Think about healthcare. If we focus on the third goal of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – Good health and wellbeing – then education of girls and women has a central role to play. The oft-quoted proverb (originating in Ghana) ‘If you educate a woman, you educate a nation’ is a major part of this issue.

But, turning to research, increasingly it is becoming obvious how following a white heteronormative approach to medicine means that the problems that afflict women – childbirth, gynaeocological issues and the menopause to take some very obvious examples – get less attention than diseases such as cancer and heart disease. According to the United Nations Population Fund a woman dies approximately every 2 minutes somewhere in the world due to pregnancy or childbirth. Many of those deaths are entirely preventable. When I highlighted a study enabling a model placenta to be developed as my highlight of the year for the Observer at the end of 2018, one of the Cambridge authors wrote to me saying

I am grateful that you have highlighted this as basic science. Research in problems women experience during pregnancy has been a struggle to get funded and it has always been out of the mainstream.

However, enabling women to study science and medicine, even in the developed world, perhaps particularly in the developed world, does not mean their chances of progression are the same as for men. Last week I attended a meeting celebrating the launch of the special issue of The Lancet’s theme issue on advancing women in science, medicine, and global health. It was a day focussing on the barriers women still face and the consequences of this, not just in countries like the UK but around the world. Some of the articles make for grim reading. I will just focus on two points below.

But firstly a positive aside, some good news which broke on the day: the current Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, is to become the new Master of Trinity College Cambridge come October. The first woman to take on the role at Trinity, I for one will be welcoming her to Cambridge, welcoming her as a fellow woman heading a once-all-male college. Given all Sally has done in pushing the equalities agenda in her role as CMO, including making a silver Athena Swan award a condition of NIHR funding for clinical schools which shook up the academic world back in 2011 when the policy was announced, I am sure we can expect some action here in Cambridge once she has got settled in (and I expect I will be cheering her on).

Now to turn to the Lancet meeting and accompanying papers, let me first consider a study from Canada which indicates how women remain disadvantaged in peer review of grants if the focus is placed on the calibre of the investigator and not the specifics of the project. The evidence is accumulating how women are systematically less likely to be given first (or last) place in an author list, the places that ‘count’ most; that their papers are less cited; that they receive fewer invitations to give keynote talks and, as I mentioned in a recent post, that their papers tend to get greater scrutiny and higher rates of rejection than those by their male peers. And the evidence is building, in studies such as the Canadian one I’ve just cited, that this is not because they are less good at their work but because of systemic problems in our culture.

We need not only to introduce unconscious bias training for panels – necessary but very far from sufficient – but to think much harder both about any ‘figures of merit’ used in an assessment process, and to challenge the processes that lead to systemic disadvantage. Journal editors, what do you do to check that male and female submitting authors really receive equal treatment? Conference organisers, are you sure that your keynote speakers are representative of the best in their field or have you taken some easy shortcuts in choosing your alleged stars? We need to hold all these people to account

For my second point let me cite Sally Davies, sitting on one of the panels. She raised a point highly relevant to this discussion, what really is excellence, this much-vaunted thing we all talk about? Shouldn’t excellence really include a lot more than papers in fancy journals? Well, of course I agree with her, and have written about this before, but it is a point that needs repeating because most of our institutions have not yet gone far enough in changing their culture. Universities are starting to broaden promotion criteria to include other good practices such as mentoring, service to the community (and of course teaching), but it is usually couched in terms that still strike me as a bit limited.

For instance, the last promotions reference I wrote for another university lumped leadership and service together, giving three bullet points of which two referred to leadership – of units within the university or external committees – and only one talked about ‘a record of successful support for the careers of colleagues.’ Running a research group successfully should, perhaps, have been given a bit more weight in this ‘excellence’ spectrum. Women may not be offered leadership roles (due to habits of bias) and immediately their chances of promotion are downweighted however much they have done to support others. And, let us remember, the evidence is that women show all the same habits of bias as men when it comes to choosing between men and women for leadership.

The Lancet day focussed on women in medicine, and as such the horror stories tended to be focussed on particular medical specialities, with surgery coming in for special opprobrium, but in general the issues for women in medicine and global health are little different from those for women in academic science of any hue. As we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science we all should be thinking hard about what more we individually and collectively can do. Our object must be to make this day redundant, but I’m not holding my breath that will happen any time soon.



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