W like women in academia or why we all should care about equality

It can be generally agreed upon that the ongoing pandemic has been a challenge for each and every person on this globe. For some more, for some less – also science has been affected in a way that we are still about to discover. Apart from the task of finding a vaccine or cure for the COVID-19 virus, academia also faces backlashes from the global measures to keep the virus contained: Scientists cannot proceed with their research work as planned with dire consequences for their careers. The virtual conference on “The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on women in science: Challenges and solutions” organized by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) on 9 September 2020 seized the occasion to highlight the challenges – especially women in science – face during these trying times. “Women in academia have published less research results in the past months” says HITS researcher Ariane Nunes-Alves when asked about her motivation to co-organize the conference. “This ultimately means that we are going back to less diversity.”

Usually this blog presents the latest or most exciting research activities of the scientists at HITS. But many of the so-called “HITSters” are much more than just their research. A lot of them have many additional talents such as music, photography, or sports. And some others are very engaged in making science a better place for everyone. One of those people is Dr. Ariane Nunes-Alves. Ariane was born and raised in São Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil. Her way into science was pretty much straight forward since she dreamed to be a scientist since her childhood. She studied biology and also learned programming throughout her studies and eventually ended up doing both. Since 2018 she is a visiting scientist and Capes-Humboldt Fellow in the Molecular and Cellular Modeling (MCM) group at HITS working on the development of computational methods to predict residence times for drugs-protein complexes. Her passion lies in interdisciplinary research and she is a vivid member of the global computational chemistry (#compchem) community. Apart from her research activities she is very engaged in the topics of gender equality and women in academia as seen in her latest commentary on gender disparity in science published in JCIM. This blog article highlights yet another project of Ariane to reflect on gender issues in academia.

Being a scientist during COVID-19

“I am Brazilian, so I really do miss the in person interaction with my friends and colleagues.” As for many people, being physically isolated for weeks or even months did not leave Ariane without a mark. Despite her ups and downs regarding motivation and moods, Ariane counts herself however among the more fortunate scientists. “Since I conduct most of my research with the computer, I was able to continue my work despite not being at the institute for a couple of weeks.” Other friends and colleagues have experienced more severe restraints “Some of my friends have small children they had to take care of. It was basically impossible for them to work”, says Ariane. This anecdote reflects a phenomenon that occurred to a lot of people at the moment – especially women inside and outside of science. The effects of those restraints can be devastating in an environment where productivity is measured in a way such as science according to the HITS researcher: “The less papers one publishes, the less productive one is seen in academia. And since women in science are the one that publish less during this crisis, they are already seeing the negative effects on their career. This only adds to previous problems, like explicit or implicit bias.”

The reasons for women not being able to follow their regular work are manifold. Many researchers who work in wet labs were simply not able to collect any data at all to progress their work. Others, who could work at home, were occupied with juggling childcare, home schooling, and other household chores, since those tasks unfortunately still fall primarily onto women due to cultural reasons. “In addition to that all the networking events such as conferences just disappeared, which are crucial to build up and maintain contact with people in science to eventually get new opportunities.”

One might argue that everybody has been similarly affected during the past couple of months, but that some are more hit than others has been summed up by Roni Wright, one of the speakers during the conference, who vividly described how COVID-19 affects people in different ways. To make those differences more easily to fathom, she cited a poem by Damien Barr: “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.” Women in science often only have the latter.

It’s not about women vs. men, it’s about diversity

There are many different challenges women in science are facing: “The competition to get certain jobs only increased since some institutes freeze their hiring processes.” says Ariane Nunes-Alves. “And since less papers means being considered less productive, women will have even less chances for jobs and grants at the moment which will push them out of academia.” But there might be a solution to this problem according to the HITS researcher: “We need new metrics to measure productivity”. But those metrics are not the only things that have to be changed to create fairer chances for women in academia. Further, Ariane suggests the use of a certain model that has been already implemented in the Netherlands, where certain jobs are specifically for women to increase the percentage of women in academia. “Just saying that we want equality is not enough, we have to implement measures so people can actually reach the level of equality.”

But what causes these inequal problems in the first place that we need to implement such measures? “We heard talks from women from all over the world during the conference and one thing that struck me was the similarity when it came to structures of power. Already apart from a crisis, women do suffer disadvantages in their private and professional life. It may vary from country to country, but they do exist. Corona only added to those already existing disadvantages.” Ariane describes those disadvantages by the way how lots of research groups are generally designed. A high percentage of leaders in research are male who might not face issues such as childcare in the way female leaders do. “If they do not experience how children can have an impact on the academic work and productivity – especially during this crisis, they might not take the right measures to ensure that everybody can keep up.” 

When purposefully asked why academia should care about diversity and equality at all, Ariane calmy states: “We will have a better academia and it’s the right thing to do. We have to be accommodative for everybody, because everybody deserves the chance to do what they want to do.”

Despite already having a deeper insight into this topic, Ariane still learned a lot of new things while co-organizing and attending the conference. She highlights the general openness to the problems some of the speakers have faced during this year. “I was especially moved that so many women shared their personal experiences and described their inner conflict of taking care of their children while still trying to work at the same time.” That is one of the reasons why empathy is so important also for science according to Ariane: “To navigate this crisis scientists, especially the ones in leadership positions, need to have empathy, be decent human beings and treat others accordingly.”

You can watch the talks of the conference online here.


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Isabel Lacurie is a science communication enthusiast and worked in the HITS communications department from 2013 to 2022.

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