Each year International Women’s Day is celebrated on 8th March. This year’s theme is “collective individualism – how our individual actions, conversations, behaviours and mind-sets can have an impact on our larger society.”
Women are still underrepresented in STEM for a variety of complex reasons, some of which are interconnected, including unsupportive work environments and cultures, unconscious bias, conscious bullying and harassment, and a lack of support with family responsibilities. (1, 2, 3, 4). Although approximately 50% of the PhD student population in the biological and agricultural sciences is women, this figure drops dramatically at more senior levels (5, 6, 7), with additional barriers for those who do achieve academic positions, such as opportunities to engage with entrepreneurial activities (8).
Creating a sustainable inclusive environment requires significant and embedded changes (9). However, we believe that there are small things that everyone can do, which can make a big difference and help us to move towards a more diverse and inclusive culture. Here we highlight some examples of individuals and organisations making a conscious effort to help raise the profile of women plant scientists. They are doing so by creating supportive and inclusive networks, providing more diverse platforms for communication, and paying attention to women’s contributions to the research field.
Most large international scientific conferences are organised and hosted by learned societies and charitable organisations, such as ASPB, SEB, FESPB, EPSO and GARNet. They provide an important platform for communication in the form of talks and posters, as well as informal networking and socialising. Recognising the importance to academic career success and progression of these meetings, many organisations have implemented policies for session organisers that insist on speaker inclusivity. This ruling can be challenging and has been addressed in published articles on how to ensure speaker gender equality (10, 11, 12). In addition, many conferences provide side programmes to help assist networking and even, as with the ASPB for example, feature special events for women, early career stage scientists and minority delegates.
Connected to conferences, another important communication platform, namely the internationally recognised peer-reviewed journal, is crucial for career recognition and advancement. Many learned societies generate large profits from their journals and use this money to organise and subsidise their scientific meetings. It’s important that these charity-associated journals feature editorial boards that are balanced and inclusive with review practices that are fair (13, 14). Transparency and inclusivity are just two of the many ethical guidelines set out by the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) (15). Journal board members benefit from the exposure and esteem that comes with being connected with publications associated with their research area. In the longer term this association promotes their profile and endorses their role as experts, mentors and recognised leaders in their field, all important factors for those seeking senior academic positions (16, 17).
Increasing the visibility of women in science helps to establish their expert status in their research community (18) and to others who might seek an expert opinion, such as the media (19). There are a number of initiatives highlighting the work of women in STEM. These include Soapbox Science, the Australian STEM women database, or the ‘Request a Woman Scientist’ database run by 500 Women Scientists (20).
You don’t need to be a big organisation to help raise the profiles of female scientists. From 2017 to 2018, Josie Maidment (@JosieMaidment) ran the @365womeinSTEM Twitter campaign, in which she highlighted one women in STEM per day over the course of a year. Megan Lynch (@may_gun) curates a database of women with expertise in fruit (for example plant breeding, molecular biology or research horticulture). Twitter campaigns like #WomeninSTEM or #AmplifyWomenScientists help to increase the reach and visibility of women’s voices on social media, as users give a ‘shout-out’ to those who they think others should follow.
We invite you to reflect, review and take action to make a difference. Even if you think that you can do very little to change the situation for yourself or for women in your network, just keep in mind, every little helps…
Anne Osterrieder is a Public Engagement Coordinator at the Centre for Tropical Medicine and Global Health, University of Oxford, and is the Chief Editor of Botany One. Formerly a Senior Lecturer in Biology and Science Communication and researcher in plant sciences at Oxford Brookes University, Anne was also an active member of the Society for Experimental Biology for many years, and in 2012 was awarded the prestigious President’s Medal for Education. Renowned for her colourful innovation and creativity in science communication and teaching, Anne’s words and creations can be found on her blog, http://www.plantcellbiology.com/
Sarah Blackford is a PhD Career Consultant with over 20 years’ experience specialising in supporting the professional and personal career development of bioscience PhD students and researchers. Formerly Head of Education and Public Affairs at the Society for Experimental Biology and Assistant Editor at the Journal of Experimental Botany, Sarah now works as a freelance career consultant delivering workshops and 1-2-1 career guidance at universities and research institutes across Europe. She is an honorary teaching fellow at Lancaster University and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. www.biosciencecareers.org