Today is International Women’s Day, a day that celebrates the achievements of women all around the globe and across the social, economic, cultural and political spectrum. This year, the theme of International Women’s Day is Balance for Better, which calls for a more gender-balanced world. To mark International Women’s Day, ARMI Group Leaders Professor Susie Nilsson (who also holds a position at CSIRO), Associate Professor Edwina McGlinn (also an EMBL – Australia Laboratory Group Leader), and Dr Jennifer Zenker spoke about their personal experiences as women in academia, the mindset and cultural shift that is needed to achieve real gender parity and their hopes for the future.
Pictured (left to right): Dr Jennifer Zenker, Professor Susie Nilsson, Associate Professor Edwina McGlinn
For most scientists, their love for the field is sparked at an early stage and nurtured through school and university. This was very much the case for Susie, Edwina and Jennifer, who completed undergraduate degrees in science before embarking on their PhDs without any particular impediments. It was only at or after the postdoctoral stage that these three women began noticing the systemic barriers, obstacles and hoops that affected them as they tried to progress in their careers as women in science and academia. “For women, the goalposts keep moving. They’re a lot harder for women, they’re different compared to men,” said Susie.
In particular, for Susie and Edwina, the largest hurdle they have faced was taking time off to have children. It’s well-known that recovering from this type of career disruption in academia, usually during postdoctoral studies, can be difficult. “Once you fall behind in generating results, you fall behind in getting publications, which affects your CV, which never catches up, and how competitive you are for funding,” says Susie. She also notes the strange shift in expectations when children grow older. “The time and emotional investment in your children don’t change as they age. And yet, how people treat you when you have young children compared to when you have teenage or adult children changes as if your home life now occupies less of your time and energy. People expect you to work differently.” It’s time to change how society is wired and to address unconscious bias.
“For women, the goalposts keep moving. They’re a lot harder for women, they’re different compared to men,” – Professor Susie Nilsson
Delving into their personal experiences, Jennifer spoke of her time as a postdoctoral fellow, mentioning there was a lack of mentorship, women group leaders, and support for women. “It was quite difficult to be successful as a postdoc. It’s not impossible, but you had to work harder than men. It was a very isolating experience,” says Jennifer, who turned to her passion for sport to help her cope with the stresses of the environment. In contrast, Edwina, who completed her postdoctoral studies at Harvard Medical School, was surrounded by outstanding women, both as peers and as leaders. “The lab I was a post-doc in worked closely with two other labs, both led by women who had kids of their own. These women were at the top of their fields. There was zero limitation to what I saw at such an elite level,” recalled Edwina. These two polar experiences speak to the importance of women role models, and the need to support women at all stages of their career and their decisions both in and outside of science. Edwina also remembers working with supportive men in leadership roles, which only served to highlight the important role of men in this conversation and in advocating for gender equity.
“It’s not impossible, but you had to work harder than men,” – Dr Jennifer Zenker
While there is a long way to go, Jennifer now counts herself lucky to lead a lab in Australia, where she feels the culture is more progressive, open and supportive. This discussion of mentorship led to the salient observation of the lack of women in leadership roles. “There are plenty of women at the undergraduate and graduate level, but making that transition from postdoc to junior group leader is where the exodus begins. This is the part we have to tackle,” commented Edwina. All three were keen to understand why so many young, smart and talented women scientists were leaving academia at such a critical point. Edwina explains that a part of the problem lies in the perception of group leader roles. “We need to show women that being a group leader is a viable future prospect.” Coupled with the well-documented phenomena of ‘imposter syndrome,’ and the socialised behaviour of downplaying skills and achievements and the hesitation in applying for promotions, Edwina believes it’s time to work as a community to change this entrenched mindset.
“Some of these problems have persisted for a long time. There has been a lot of change, but there have also been a lot of band-aid solutions, a lot of spoken change,” said Susie. Sustainable changes that will keep women in science and academia are sorely needed, ranging from improved paid maternity leave and lab personnel support during this time to changing how CVs are judged in grant applications and promotions, especially if women have experienced career disruptions. Edwina points out the continued unacceptable disparity in NHMRC funding, while Susie notes with the overall funding pool decreasing, there are real concerns that this problem will be exacerbated before it gets better.
“We need to show women that being a group leader is a viable future prospect,” – Associate Professor Edwina McGlinn
For Jennifer, the youngest group leader of the three, the key is achieving balance. With so few women in leadership roles, the burden of being on committees and boards to tick a box can be overwhelming and tokenistic. It’s a matter of achieving a critical mass to affect change. It’s a matter of committing to diversity, and not just in terms of gender, but diversity in all forms. It’s a matter of ensuring that society isn’t losing great minds in solving some of the most important questions in biology.
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The Nilsson Group is working to understand haemopoietic stem cells at a cellular and molecular level, how they differentiate into new blood cells and the microenvironment in which they reside. For more information on Professor Susie Nilsson and the Nilsson Group, who are employed by CSIRO and hold adjunct appointments with ARMI, please visit the Nilsson Group page. You can contact Susie via email@example.com
The McGlinn Group is focused on elucidating novel gene networks that drive growth and identity in the early embryo. For more information on Associate Professor Edwina McGlinn and the McGlinn Group at ARMI, please visit the McGlinn Group page. You can contact Edwina via firstname.lastname@example.org
The Zenker group seeks to understand how a cell’s structure and function is regulated by the continuous re-organisation of the microtubule network using live imaging of animal models of developmental and stem cell biology. For more information on Dr Jennifer Zenker and the Zenker Group at ARMI, please visit the Zenker Group page. You can contact Jennifer via email@example.com