An evidence-based approach to equity in science

Paying greater attention to parenthood, recruitment, and retention

Susan Howitt

Science and technology, Social policy, Education | Australia, The World

20 August 2019

Better evidence-based policy addressing cultural and institutional barriers in science is required to improve gender equity across disciplines, Susan Howitt writes.

While science benefits from gender diversity, in reality, only 16 per cent of the STEM-qualified (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) workforce in Australia are women.

Within universities, women account for about 40 per cent of STEM undergraduate completions and Level B academics but at Level E, the proportion of women falls to 14 per cent.

There is considerable evidence that both explains the current situation and identifies what needs to be done. Perhaps surprisingly, since scientists spend their working lives evaluating and analysing evidence, many show a reluctance to accept that there are evidence-based approaches to equity policy.

When the need for action to support gender diversity is raised, many scientists may rely on anecdotes and opinions instead of evidence.

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For example, senior women may feel that their success indicates that there is no problem. But this ignores most of the data – especially of the experiences of women who have left science.

Senior men may only identify a problem when their daughters join the workforce. Again, this privileges anecdote over evidence. No scientist would accept anecdotal evidence or a single sample in their science, so why do so many fail to accept evidence in other areas?

Even more worryingly, when confronted with research reflecting this kind of discrimination, male scientists tend to discount such work as poorly done.

Perhaps the most pernicious view is that success in science is based on merit and that any policies that change current practices would result in a lowering of standards.

This is not only a form of self-justification – one that encourages successful people to think that they are the most meritorious – but it also ignores a large body of evidence showing that unconscious bias and other institutional factors result in discrimination against women.

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Two recent reports address the myth of meritocracy, as well as providing examples of potential action. These are just as relevant for science and complement evidence published in high impact science journals showing similar results.

For example, a rigorous and controlled study with a large sample size showed that the same Curriculum Vitae was less successful when it belonged to ‘Jennifer’ rather than ‘John’.

There are also large scale longitudinal studies that examine the proportion of women and ethnic minority groups in organisations after the introduction of various policies designed to address equity.

These studies identify policies that are successful as well as some very common approaches that do very little or even sometimes have negative impacts – compulsory diversity training is one such example. An evidence-based approach to gender equity in science would take account of such studies and identify local factors that need to be addressed most.

Much of the policy debate and action is directed at better support for parents, recognising that childcare responsibilities have a greater impact on women than men. While this is a very positive move that will go some way to addressing gender equity, we also need greater recognition of how career breaks might affect one’s track record but not the quality of their research or potential.

Other policies are needed to tackle cultural and institutional barriers that reinforce existing inequities unrelated to parenthood. This can be seen most clearly by the fact that there is a different representation of women in different scientific disciplines – with the lowest proportion of women in physics, maths, and engineering.

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Interestingly, a recent study showed that the proportion of men in a discipline is correlated with the view that success is due to innate talent rather than hard work. This is also associated with the belief that women are less suited to academic work in these disciplines and that the academic environment is less welcoming to women.

These results play to the stereotype of the male scientist genius and are a clear indication of cultural issues within science that must be addressed if equity is to be achieved.

There are, therefore, at least three distinct issues to be addressed: supporting parents, the recruitment of women into secondary and tertiary study in some disciplines, and the retention of women across the board. Some policy directions – such as re-thinking merit – cut across all three matters, but there is also a need for specific actions to address each one.

The Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) initiative, which is trialling the UK’s Athena Swan equity accreditation framework in Australia, is a welcome approach, as it raises awareness around gender equity and the value of data-driven approaches. Whether this is enough to convince scientists to take the evidence seriously remains to be seen.

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