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THE BLACK HOLE

A call to male scientists in 2019 – #moreXXscience

Some practical and achievable ways that every male scientist can help balance the gender scales in 2019.

By DAVID KENT | JAN 09 2019

I’ve taken a longer than usual break from work this holiday season to spend quality time with my two children (the youngest of whom I’m about to go on parental leave with from Feb-May). During this time I came across several articles, blogs, tweets, etc, surrounding people’s commitments to 2019. As is often the way with inspiration for my blogs, a combination of little things has prompted this post on how male scientists can help promote gender equality in their everyday actions. One specific thing was James Briscoe’s new year resolutions (find him on Twitter @briscoejames) where he committed as editor of the journal Development to be more gender-balanced in his reviewer recruitment – a simple, and hopefully effective, pledge made by a single person.

We all know that many resolutions fail to progress past January, so I thought it would be useful to ride the spirit of this commitment by doing some homework on practical and achievable ways that every male scientist can help balance the gender scales in 2019 and beyond. I also hope that I can encourage other male scientists to share their enthusiasm by committing to and carrying out some of these actions. If you are inclined to share your support, let others know by using the hashtag #moreXXscience on Twitter:

Strive for 50: 50  – here I’m drawing inspiration from the world of science journalism regarding article sources (a great piece from Ed Yong at The Atlantic):

Finding diverse sources, and tracking them, takes time, but not that much time. I reckon it adds 15 minutes per piece, or an hour or so of effort over a week. That seems like a trifling amount, and the bare minimum that journalists should strive for

Surely scientists should be putting in the effort too. And it’s actually really straightforward in areas such as:

  • Invited speaker suggestions
  • Reviewer suggestions (grants, papers, institutions, etc)
  • Conference organizers
  • Hiring committees
  • Interview shortlists

At the very least, each and every one of these will help build the profile of the top female experts in a field and only takes a few minutes of time (historians have gone so far as to build an international database, thanks TT for the heads up!). If you are willing to go the extra mile here, make your acceptance of invitations conditional on gender equity for being a reviewer, conference speaker, etc (i.e. don’t partake in all-male expert panels).

Think locally  – I encourage all male scientists to think about their immediate environment and what (if any) power they might have within it. If you have responsibility for institutional resources; if you’re in charge of hiring staff or recruiting students; if you sit on a visiting speaker’s committee — in any of these situations, what steps are you taking to secure gender equity? If you are in an even more powerful position, extend this thinking to other positions of prestige: who should be the next academic journal editor, society president, institute or department head.

The culture of harassment is real; and we all need to step up  – we all have heard stories about “that” male professor who appears to be entitled to harass his employees, students, and colleagues. These stories are so pervasive that institutions have finally started to track the problem. In 2017, for example, Cambridge University (where I work) started an anonymous reporting system and received 173 complaints in nine months. Such widespread reporting suggests that the problem is not a one person problem, but rather a systemic threat to current and future members of the university. We all need to play a role in halting this behaviour. For a male scientist, this doesn’t just mean “don’t harass your students or staff” directly, it also means supporting people who report harassment or gender-based discrimination. Be clear that your colleagues, your students, and your bench-mates know that you will support them if they need to make a disclosure. If you feel able to take an even more active role, reach out and actively ask people if they need support when you observe things that look like they could be deemed harassment or discriminatory.

Challenge the status quo  – this last point might be a bit dreamy for every male scientist to take on and support, but I’ve long wondered how much the “group leader” setup of science contributes to the gender imbalance. If we could find a way to run academic science in a way that is team or project based rather than single investigator-led, would it help more women enter into leadership roles? How many lab lieutenants are in the shadow of an egocentric male group leader? Can we re-define how academic science is funded?

Final thoughts  – I’ll conclude this article with a concept from L’Oréal (a surprising source to some people, no doubt!). L’Oréal has been a major leader in promoting women in science and one particularly insightful resource has been their publication “TECTONIC MOVEMENTS: How cultural shifts can lift up women in science” – a good read for those that actually want to help change things. A short excerpt is below for those not willing to pore over it:

Culture is the system of shared assumptions and values that guide behaviour. Because the science environment is mostly male, the shared assumptions and values are dominated by male influence. Thus, changing the culture will require male participation. To enable women to thrive and achieve STEM leadership at the highest levels, we believe it’s time for non-female allies in the scientific community to help accelerate change – to commit to improving conditions for women scientists as they progress in their careers.

Come on, men – #moreXXscience

P.S.:  The ideas in this post have had significant input from a number of close friends and family members in the last couple of days (and over the years) – so as always, thanks to each of you!

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
David Kent is a group leader at the University of Cambridge in the Cambridge Stem Cell Institute. His laboratory's research focuses on fate choice in single blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David is currently the Stem Cell Institute’s Public Engagement Champion and has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. John Doe / January 17, 2019 at 11:25

    To prove his point that “The culture of harassment is real”, the author states “These stories are so pervasive that institutions have finally started to track the problem. In 2017, for example, Cambridge University (where I work) started an anonymous reporting system and received 173 complaints in nine months.”

    Indeed, the “stories” are pervasive, and this author is contributing just another “story” with the “173 complaints in nine months”. The 173 complaints he refers to have no validity. Both the method and the questionnaire used in collecting the complaints are patently defective.

    The 173 complaints are those reported on the University of Cambridge Student Complaints website, which is here: https://www.studentcomplaints.admin.cam.ac.uk/anonymous-reporting.

    The method is defective because the complaints are filed through an anonymous reporting system. Thus, the validity of the complaints cannot be checked or verified. It is possible that all 173 complaints were reported by the same individual on fictitious cases.

    The questionnaire used is also defective because it is extremely vague and infinitely far reaching in its coverage. Using the questionnaire, one could legitimately report an “inappropriate behaviour”, that will count as an incident involving Cambridge University, of the following nature: A visitor to the University reports, on behalf of another visitor who did not want to report, an incident of “inappropriate use of social media” (whatever that means) that happened outside of the city of Cambridge more than a year ago, by a perpetrator who is neither student nor staff at the University. Furthermore, the reporter doesn’t know if the behavior was linked to any real or perceived personal traits of the victim, and the reporter cannot prove that the inappropriate behaviour took place.

    Clearly, this reporting scheme is ludicrous. I am surprised that there are not thousands of reports submitted because every inappropriate behaviour perpetrated or seemed to have been perpetrated by anyone throughout history at any place in the universe can legitimately be reported using this questionnaire.

    Not ludicrous but unethical and damaging to society is to use proofs of such meaningless nature to validate that “The culture of harassment is real”.

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