A few weeks ago I spent a lot of time attending PhD defenses, as it was that time of the year (end of semester, start of summer). My friend and office mate defended his thesis on artificial recharge of ground water in Iran, and a female colleague at dep. of Physical Geography defended her thesis on methane exchange in boreal forests in Sweden. Nothing unusual about that, apart from the fact that I got little work done on my own dissertation, but that’s fine. Then it struck me that this was the second female PhD defense I had been to during my three years as a PhD student, and the first female PhD defense at my department. So I started to count how many defenses I had been to in the past three years and found that I have been to 12 defenses, of which only two were women graduating. During this time period, at our department, two female PhD students have also graduated as licentiates, but as far as I can remember no male PhD students have done this.
In an introductory PhD course some time ago we had a discussion about the gender gap in science and why it is that women are less likely than men to pursue a career in science, for example “Equal numbers of male and female students study for PhDs in biology and yet most professors in this field of science are men“.The discussions about these differences at post-PhD level mostly touched upon the fact that women have children (apparently men don’t) and that this made it harder for women to compete with men over jobs, as they go on parental leaves that slow down their career, less publications, et.c., and the fact that they get other responsibilities and priorities besides work (again, men apparently don’t). I would say there’s a lot of truth in that argument, not necessarily that women are more likely to stay at home more with their kids than their male partners, but that they are expected to do so. Even in Sweden, where an equal share of parental leave is encouraged and even economically motivated by state grants, we still have these structures and differences.
Another issue with the gender gap is that women do not have many role models in science, and that it discourages us from applying for positions where we do not see ourselves. And also being in a male dominated environment can be a struggle, as there is a lot of (mostly subconscious) sexism. There are looks, comments (sometimes well meaning, but nonetheless sexist or suppressing) such as “I’d like to direct my question to the lovely lady”, “are you shy?” or “we’re providing girls beverages” (whatever that is), patronizing and “mansplaining“, and a general feeling that if I don’t downplay my femininity in the way I dress/behave, I will not be seen and respected as a researcher. So what needs to change to even out this gender gap?
First of all, we all need to consider men and women as equals (duh!), and also as equally responsible for taking care of kids. Of course different families have different preferences, but the general structures, and regulations, can be changed to make it more acceptable for women to have a career and for men to take a bigger responsibility for the children. That would also mean that employers wouldn’t find it “risky” only to employ women, since both men and women would be equally prone to go on parental leave. Another step is to make sure that women are represented in academic forums, such as conferences (last conference I attended, a strong majority of keynotes were men), journals, and universities (especially at higher positions). At individual level we (both women and men) need to become better at identifying sexism in out vicinity and more importantly at reacting against it when we see it.
And on the “mansplaining” side note, I’ve seen men taking over the conversation and starting to tell me and others what my research is about, more than once. Another time I was told that Kurdistan is a very dangerous place, by a man who had never been there.