As a white woman of European descent growing up in Australia, I was blissfully unaware (perhaps even ignorant) of the nature and extent of discrimination faced by many women and underrepresented groups in science. To me, gender issues felt like a thing of the past. It certainly was not a topic that was discussed at home, at school, or during my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. In fact, it only became apparent to me as I transitioned into a postdoctoral position, when I realised that there are far fewer women in academic roles due to widespread biases within both funding bodies and the work environment itself, and the accumulation of these biases over the course of one's career.
In Australia, where PhD labour is cheap, many young people are encouraged to explore careers in science. In my experience, however, institutions and advisors neglect to reveal to potential PhD students that careers in academia are extremely difficult to maintain, especially for women. Perhaps I had seen glimpses of this during my undergraduate degree, but I had been so fixated on learning as much as I could and finishing my studies that I wasn't fully paying attention. During my PhD, however, the conversation around grant funding intensified, and I began to understand how unstable my chosen career path was; without a consistent influx of new, ‘ground-breaking’ discoveries, we can't publish, and without publications, we can't get grants, and without grants, we don't have the money to make more discoveries. As soon as researchers find themselves in this seemingly never-ending negative-feedback loop, they quickly lose the favour of grant bodies and the institutions that host them. The immense physical and emotional burden often leads to researchers leaving academia, either by choice or force. This, and other topics on equity, diversity and inclusion, are frequently and openly discussed at my new workplace. Thus, it has been incredibly easy to become receptive, informed, invigorated and involved. It has changed my whole view of what it's really like to be a female researcher, and I've become ignited for transformation.
I had always wanted to be either an oncologist or a cancer researcher since the delicate age of four, when I witnessed the rapid decline of my late cousin due to an extremely rare form of neuroblastoma. My only memories of him were in a hospital bed where he lay immobile, pale and bloated – withering away. I was too young to understand what was happening, but old enough to sense that it was bad and to know that I wanted to do something about it. Because my interest and drive in medical science was so intense, and because I had a supportive family, there were no questions – I was going to be a cell biologist, and no one could stop me. I didn't care how I would get there or how long it would take or what people would think of me. I therefore never had the urge to seek out female scientists as role models for inspiration. However, through my new workplace, I have become aware that other women were not so lucky.
As my interest in gender inequality increased, I started conversations with other scientists. I learnt that some women were discouraged from science by their families and were told it is not a discipline for women and that they should pursue careers that are “more compatible with motherhood” or higher earning. Some followed this advice at first, but eventually followed their scientific passion. But where did this position of masculinity in academia come from? Although we could view it as old-fashioned, it is actually not difficult to observe in modern society, especially when you realise that men hold more than 70% of higher academic positions in Australia (https://sciencegenderequity.org.au/about/gender-equity-in-higher-education/) and over 90% of Nobel Prizes are awarded to men (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/the-nobel-gender-gap-widens-as-no-women-awarded-science-prizes-180978835/). The message that this sends to people, especially those who are younger and female-identifying, is that science is either a profession not available to them or one in which they will fail to flourish. We need more exposure to female role models and leaders.
This realisation led me to decide that I wanted to start promoting women already in science and to inspire younger women interested in science to pursue academic careers. I aimed to show the world that anyone could become a scientist; that science is not restricted to a particular look, age, culture or gender; and that women could indeed flourish. With support from the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion team at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), as part of Diversity Fest 2021, I shone a spotlight on the work of 27 female-identifying researchers from a range of scientific and cultural backgrounds in a virtual microscopy exhibition. These female microscopists came from UNSW and affiliated research institutes and ranged from junior to senior researchers, including research assistants and PhD students. Their artistic images and videos were captioned in non-specialist language, allowing both scientists and the general public to celebrate and appreciate the beautiful, creative science. Over the course of the week-long Diversity Fest, this exhibition was the most accessed event, with over 1500 webpage views and over 400 votes for the People's Choice Awards. I received positive feedback only, with praise for the event and initiative, comments on the hidden magnificence of microscopy, bewildered expressions prompted by how broad science could be, and requests for exhibitions in future years. This exhibition has now found a permanent home on the UNSW SAGE Athena SWAN website (https://www.edi.unsw.edu.au/the-illuminators), where it will supplement the university's mission to actively promote gender equality as part of the world-renowned Athena SWAN charter.
While organising this microscopy exhibition, I hadn't fathomed how far-reaching the opportunities presenting themselves could be. Before I knew it, I was having discussions with contributing microscopists about their experiences as female-identifying researchers. It became apparent that, like me, most PhD students hadn't noticed gender inequality, or, if they had, it was more likely in an indirect, almost unconscious manner rather than direct, intentional aggression. The gender disparity gap became more obvious as women climbed the academic ladder, which often coincides with starting a family. Some young group leaders began experiencing biases, particularly in the workplace, once they became a leader, and it was unclear whether this was due to their gender, age or race (or the intersection of these factors).
I was told that women commonly feel that they need to fight for acceptance and constantly prove their worth, both to work colleagues and grant funding bodies. In the workplace, I was told stories of microaggressions, such as how some male lab members don't acknowledge women with a simple greeting in the morning, or don't take suggestions from women seriously unless they are backed up by another male, or think a woman is incapable of an experimental technique that that woman has been doing for years. Female researchers have also been criticised for their appearance and self-expression – gaining unwanted male attention, or being told that their clothes or make-up are “too distracting” and “unprofessional”. As a result, some women experience a loss of identity as they are forced to change how they express their individuality in order to be recognised in a way others deemed appropriate. When women took on leadership responsibilities, they were often viewed as “aggressive” and “rude” as opposed to “assertive” and “confident”, like their male counterparts. In the realm of grant funding, it is statistically more likely that men are awarded grants, and also more money, than female applicants. A contributing factor is that women face significant career disruptions when starting a family. Thus, on paper, they are seen as being less productive than their male counterparts who could continue without interruption.
There is also a lack of equality observed in the workplace once a woman goes on maternity leave and returns to work with her continuing parental responsibilities. There were stories shared about contracts not being renewed for women in late pregnancy, who were then left without a job to return to and, consequently, had an even longer career break than intended due to struggles finding a new position. For mothers able to return to existing positions, their additional demands juggling both work and parenting left them excluded from social events and grant application discussions. The dedication of mothers to their work is also questioned at times; for example, were absences from work due to a child being frequently unwell, or rather due to the mother's loss in motivation. Mothers feel that there is often a lack of understanding from both colleagues and grant funding bodies that raising children and maintaining a successful career is both mentally and emotionally draining, and they often feel that they're failing in both worlds. Some women have even received comments such as “why are you pregnant? Don't you know it's disruptive to have children?” or “your husband has a good, well-paying job, do you really need to fight so hard to get a research job? You could just stay home and raise the kids” from both men and women.
From discussions with the participants of the exhibit, it is important to note that there were many examples where women, including mothers, felt extremely supported at their current workplace by understanding leaders and colleagues (male and female). Not all work environments are toxic, and women can indeed thrive – this is extremely encouraging. It is also worth mentioning that stories were shared about the difficulties new fathers can experience too, particularly those striving for equality both at home and work. For example, a father who expressed interest in parental leave was met with shock and confusion from his colleagues. Furthermore, in the recent Sydney COVID-19 lockdowns, it was observed that women were frequently asked how they were coping with juggling working from home and parental duties, and whether they needed support, while there was no obvious support network for fathers in the same position.
One of the most intriguing and unexpected outcomes from the discussions was that the women, particularly the young early-career researchers, said that they now felt more supported and prepared for the future. After hearing familiar stories of gender inequality from other women, they no longer felt alone and became empowered to continue pushing through. It is obvious from this experience that opening the door to gender inequality discussions in a safe, friendly and supportive environment not only educates young women, but can provide cathartic relief by allowing them to talk about it and realise that their experiences are ‘normal’.
It is unacceptable, however, that ‘normal’ is a world where female role models and women in leadership positions are lacking, where women encounter more difficulties maintaining an academic research career than men, and where motherhood is viewed as a disadvantage. Organising the exhibition was eye-opening and inspiring for me, and I now want to continue spreading awareness through unique and creative means, initiating open discussions, and working alongside others to actively reduce the gap, all the while maintaining my own research career. Unfortunately, promoting women in science and gender equality can also come at the cost of ‘likeability’; there will always be individuals who disagree and feel inclined to voice their opinion. I experienced this firsthand when I shared the exhibition amongst my Facebook friends, with one male commenting: “Really?? You want to fix this problem? I have a solution. The day men can be pregnant and have a menstrual cycle is the day this so-called natural equality you want to change will change…”. Resistance is a common side-effect of our efforts, and we must be aware that we may need to make painful sacrifices to promote change. But, as one female group leader who actively calls out gender inequality told me, “How could you possibly work happily in a system that doesn't treat you right? If you're in a position of privilege, then you have the responsibility to create change”. I feel more prepared for my inevitable future as a scientist, but I hope that upcoming generations of women, from all cultural backgrounds, will not need to be as strategic to be held in the same regard as their male counterparts. Science should, after all, be judged on creative ideas and the ensuing outcomes, not on how a person looks.
A special mention to Dr Sue Liu and Associate Professor Felicity Davis for their help in editing this piece, and to the 27 other women who generously participated in the ‘The Illuminators: Scope for Change’ microscopy exhibition initiative.