Visions from nature

Closing the Gender Gap in Ecology with UNESCO Women in Science Award Winner Amy Austin

By Sam Perrin

In 2018, women are still under-represented in Science. UNESCO showed that at latest count, less than a third of all researchers in Western Europe and North America are women, with the highest percentage in any region of the world 47.2%, in Central Asia. With this in mind, my colleague Kate Layton-Matthews and I were lucky enough to sit down with 2018 L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science award-winner Amy Austin at the recent Ecology Across Borders conference in Ghent, Belgium. We spoke about ecology’s recent recognition in the awards, the ongoing gender gap in science, and how we can all contribute to closing it.

Ecology’s Rising Importance

“It became increasingly clear that human activity was having huge impacts… all of a sudden the public were looking to ecologists to come up with solutions…”

Sam Perrin: Amy, this is the 20th year of the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science awards. Why has ecology just been recognised?

Amy Austin: UNESCO chooses 5 Laureates per year from 5 major regions of the world, oscillating between material and physical sciences and then life sciences. And life sciences is such an incredibly broad range of subjects. In the past most of the winners have been involved in human health and medicine, and I think that largely stems from the fact that they are very visible and important to the world at large. It’s one of the reasons that I’m so proud to have won the award. It shows that ecology is now on centre stage in terms of importance not only for understanding how natural ecosystems or interactions work, but also for human well-being. And I think that stems from its connection to climate change and other global changes, and how the effect of humans on the environment is becoming more and more a part of the general public conversation.

SP: You started as a PhD candidate at Stanford University in 1992. How has the landscape for ecologists changed over the last 25 years?

AA: When I started in ecology, I was just excited about ecology. I just wanted to understand more about ecosystems and ecological interactions. And then all of a sudden, it became increasingly clear that human activity was having huge impacts, from climate change to land use change to the ozone layer, which increased the pressure on ecologists to understand what was going on. During my career, that has led to wholescale change for the importance of where ecology as a discipline sits in our search for solutions. I was pretty unprepared for that, because when I started, people thought of ecologists as if they were tree-huggers or were naturalists. But all of a sudden the public were looking to ecologists to come up with solutions for how human activity was affecting the planet. So in the last 15 years, as climate change has been becoming increasingly accepted, there has been a complete change in the way ecology has been perceived.

Kate Layton-Matthews and me with Assoc. Professor Amy Austin
Kate and I met Amy Austin at the recent Ecology Across Borders conference in Ghent, Belgium (Photo Credit: Sam Perrin, NTNU University Museum, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

The Gender Gap in Ecology

“Overall in ecology, you have increasing representation of women at higher and higher levels, but still it’s a relatively smaller proportion than you might expect.”

SP: Has there been shift in the numbers of women coming into ecology?

AA: When I started as a graduate student, my entire lab was male. I was the only woman in my first year of graduate school. That was hard in the beginning, but right after that there was a huge influx of women, to the point that when I finished my PhD, the vast majority of the PhD students were women. But of that group, probably only half then entered into academic positions. So even at that level, you already have only half of the women continuing. And the reasons are complex and varied, but I don’t necessarily think it’s just a generational issue. I think that at that critical point between the doctorate level and the post-doc level, there’s still a large drop-off in the numbers of women.

Overall in ecology, you have increasing representation of women at higher and higher levels, but still it’s a relatively smaller proportion than you might expect, given the number that are at the PhD stage. I don’t have all of the answers as to why that’s happening, but I think that it’s still happening. We can’t just say “if we wait ten years then we’ll have more representation”, I think that those numbers are still dropping off.

One of the things I really like about this prize is that it gives you the opportunity to be more visible. I think that one of the things that is most discouraging to women who are just finishing their PhDs or starting their post-docs is that they don’t see those women in higher positions. So increasing visibility of women is really important.

Kate Layton-Matthews: Do you think that it’s at least partly positive, that maybe females feel a bit more comfortable to change career after a PhD and use those skills in another job, or negative, where they feel they can’t continue?

AA: I think that it’s a mixture. Some women that I’ve talked to that have chosen not to continue on, they find the environment itself is just unfriendly. So they may want to continue, but they don’t want to take on the pressure of constant career advancement, and so they choose to do other things that perhaps are more comfortable, in the sense that it fits better with what they’re doing. But there are of course others that would like to do something else. And I think increasingly in this generation of scientisits there are a lot of ecologists attracted more to policy-oriented jobs.

KLM: So it’s really only a problem if women dropping out is a product of a really negative environment.

AA: Yes. I mean there are a number of programs that focus on encouraging more participation – in both gender and geographic diversity in science – and there is a lot of effort put into trying to get more women to participate. Whilst those things are incredibly hopeful and super-positive, what I’ve felt more in terms of obstacles as a woman is the discouragement, the ways in which I have been discouraged from continuing on. From the hostile environment, to even having my math teacher say “girls aren’t supposed to be good at math”. That sounds like a cliché, but it was absolutely true, and that discouragement is something that has a more negative effect than we realise. I think that should be the focus of improving representation by women; not discouraging them at key points along the way, particularly at younger levels of education, at primary and secondary education.

Closing the Gap

“If we don’t try and change these numbers then we won’t change the representation.”

KLM: Would you feel that pushing women into science can sometimes be negative?

AA: What I do think can have a backlash unfortunately is that if there’s so much emphasis on having representation by women at all levels, it can also generate some resentment amongst the general scientific public, who then say “we always have to talk about this issue”. But if we don’t pay attention, then it won’t change, I am convinced of that. If we don’t try and change these numbers then we won’t change the representation.

A problem is that there’s a very small pool of highly qualified, experienced women to fill these higher positions. But once you’re in that position, you’re overwhelmed by how much pressure is put on you to fill different roles. And I want to fill all of those roles but I can’t, and I feel that it’s important for me to participate in some of these things to increase the visibility of women participating, but sometimes it’s exhausting.

I don’t think anybody should be pressured to do something that they’re not passionate about, so no, I don’t think that women should be pressured to go into science, just because we need more women in science. I think that if you want to do that, you shouldn’t be discouraged from doing it, and I think that would help just as much as some of this positive reinforcement.

KLM: Maybe that’s what we’re missing at the moment. There is a lot of positive reinforcement going on, but on the side we’re missing the point, which is this low-key discouragement.

AA: Yes, and it’s quite subtle. There’s also social pressures, what is socially acceptable, what gender roles are acceptable in a culture, which can make it more comfortable to pursue something more socially acceptable. Whether it’s because you feel isolated, because you feel on the margin, because it’s more comfortable to follow more accepted gender roles. I think that applies to both men and women. I think that if a man in this day and age wants to stay at home and take care of the kids, even though people say that’s ok, some people still don’t have a very positive impression of that choice. So I think that those things are powerful and yet subtle in terms of affecting the choices that women make along their careers.

KLM: So do you need never-ending patience or do you try to wear down these barriers?

AA: It depends on how stubborn you are. I was sufficiently so that I put up with those things, but sometimes I ask why. And its not that it has ended, but it is certainly better than it was when I first started. One of the reasons this prize has been really good is that I won this prize for working in Latin America, not for North America where I’m from, and I this has helped my department to appreciate my contribution to the centre and the region. But it hasn’t been easy.

Whether you’re a woman, or you’re foreign, different perceptions and unconscious bias are something that everyone deals with. And overcoming those things is difficult sometimes, and sometimes it’s challenging. It’s not that being a woman is the hardest thing on earth; if you’re from a certain country, if you look a certain way, people make assumptions about you.

“I think that men can be scared to engage in conversations and somehow feel unqualified to comment. But I think that being open to those kinds of conversations is an important first step.”

SP: What can men do to try and close this gap in representation?

AA: So for this award, there was a national prize and and international prize. I was on the board for the national prize to choose the women’s award, and there were a number of men who were all kind of embarrassed, asking “should I really be here”. But by the end, they were so much more educated, and so much more sort of aware of these things. They came in with the idea that they weren’t qualified to pick a female winner. But through the process they realised that there were a lot of really exceptional women that we were picking from. It highlighted the visibility.

I think that men can be scared to engage in conversations and somehow feel unqualified to comment. But I think that being open to those kinds of conversations is an important first step. To try and understand the situation. Showing empathy for the other, with respect to gender or with respect to anything else. That awareness is so critical.

I was at the Women in Science breakfast, and I think one guy showed up, and it would have been great if there were more. I would love to be able to stop having women in science breakfasts and just have events for people that are interested in gender issues, and have men come and be comfortable there. So I think empathy is critical, not just for women in science, but for all the challenges that we face in to increasing diversity in science.

Advice for Today’s Researchers

“I think that anything women can do to share their experiences and build self-confidence is valuable.”

SP: What sort of advice would you offer to younger women in science who are unsure as to whether they want to pursue a career in academia?

AA: You have to decide if you really want to do it, because there are challenges, and so you have to decide whether or not you’re willing to power through. If you’re passionate about what you’re doing, and you really want to have a academic career, then just try and do it. But seek mentorship, whether from women or men, speak to people who have experience with it and don’t suffer in silence. I felt really isolated that first year at Stanford, and it would have helped so much if I personally had reached out and asked how it is for other people, but I didn’t, and it was a mistake on my part to just fold up and power through, it erodes some of your self-esteem. I realised as time went by that things did get much better, but if I had someone that I felt like I could talk to, or if I had gone and talked to somebody, it would have improved much faster. So I think that anything women can do to share their experiences and build self-confidence is valuable.

So that would be my advice. Seek mentorship, seek people with experience to talk to, because they’ve  had similar experiences to you. If I had talked to my supervisor and said “I’m scared to death that you’re going to kick me out”, it would have helped, because he was not aware that I was going through these things. Communicate your concerns, don’t be afraid to show that you’re vulnerable or insecure. Because the vast majority of academics are also suffering some of the same things.

We would like to thank Amy for taking the time to speak with us. We wish her all the best for her future research.

For further thoughts from Amy on Women in Science, click here.

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