What is wrong with diversity in academia?
Recently I was invited to give my voice at two events: one at Stanford’s Women in Data Science, and another at a new women influencer event. I was asked to address diversity in academia.
Academia is no more my home turf — I left it in 2014 after the 13 years I spent working in three different countries and in five different labs. Revisiting my old work places, even only in an online voyeuring form, was an interesting experience. And deeply concerning.
Academia is unfortunately known for men dominating high positions — the positions of power and decision making. The positions that will decide what type of research will be given advantage over the other. Those in these positions are not necessarily bad people. But they are not diverse enough to recognize, accept, and truly fight for topics important for people of all genders.
I checked very simple statistics: what is the number of men and women working in three different countries and institutes I spent part of my work life in.
All of the statistics were taken from the annual scientific reports of the institutes I worked at. I did not have the time to dig deeper into other interesting aspects of gender diversity, although I wanted to: the number of grants and publications awarded to people. Transparent statistics were available online only for Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Stockholm, Sweden.
Positions in academic research
There are many positions in academic research, however for simplicity I have divided them in four groups, starting with the lowest autonomy, pay bracket and chance of advancement: technical position, to the highest in autonomy, decision making, and intellectually most fun (as well as the salary bracket): group leader. There are intermediary positions, such as senior academic staff, or facility managers and leaders, I tried to fit them in the four positions mentioned below.
I divided positions in the following way:
Position → Education
Technical → Specialised high school, sometimes university degree
Doctoral Student → BA or MSc
Postdoc → PhD (doctorate)
Group leader → Postdoc with more experience, more published papers and grants acquired
And all the further divisions were done on a man-women basis, as the topic of my talk was about women empowerment.
I went through the list of each group/lab and people in that lab and guestimated (I knew most of the people, the rest was done on the basis of their names) for both the Netherlands and Germany, as they did not have clearly and openly and visibly displayed numbers or percentage of women to men ratio.
In this post I have focused predominantly on a group of people that is not a minority in the number. That makes the underrepresentation in higher positions even more apparent.
After my masters degree, I moved to the Netherlands and started working at the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI). I was part of the technical staff for two years (2002–2004).
During my time, the ratio of women to men working in the research was close to 50%.
Things become a bit more disconcerting when we look at the ratio throughout the different types of positions:
Technical positions with on the average lowest salaries, the least autonomy, and the least job advancement prospects were overpopulated by women (65% to be precise), and then the percentage kept dropping as the job complexity increased (plus the salary and the recognition); 56% of doctoral students were women, 41% of postdocs and only 17% of group leaders.
It does not look great in the high positions. The director of the institute was man, and in scientific advisory council were 7 people and only one of them was woman.
I moved to Berlin, Germany in 2004, started my PhD, finished it, and did my first postdoc, all at the same campus. I left in 2011, spending a total of seven years there.
The institute where I worked had a similar pattern as the NKI in the Netherlands. There were more women working in research: 56%, with a striking distribution: 92% of technical positions were filled by women. Doctoral students had a fair 51% of women to 49% man, postdoc positions saw a drop in women (41% of them now). And the most unsettling was to see only 16% women in the group leader positions.
During my entire time at Buch campus, the directors of MDC were men. The chair of scientific council: man; the coordinator of scientific council: man. And, one might think “traditionally” administrative coordinator: woman; press and public: woman; legal: woman.
The entire MDC had seven divisions, and each division had/has a coordinator: six of the coordinators: men, and the last division was coordinated by two people: one woman and one man.
I left MDC in 2011, and wanted to see if the things changed, for that purpose I compared the number of women group leaders at the time I started (2004) and the time I left (2011).
The numbers improved, by 5% in about 7 years. This means that equality would be reached in about 42 years, if it continues progressing as such.
In 2011, I moved to Sweden, to Karolinska Institutet (KI) in Stockholm. The place where Nobel prizes are awarded. In brief, KI follows the same patterns as the previous two places I described. However, the percentages are more encouraging. Women are overpowering in all of the positions (technical staff 71%, doctoral students 64%, postdocs 53%) except the group leaders. But even there, KI is a front leader with 26% women in group leader positions.
I left KI in late 2014, and here is a comparison of 2011 to 2015 for the group leader positions: there was an advancement of 3%, which might be in a range of statistical error, but if I want to be optimistic, then I can say there is a chance we will reach equal numbers in about 25 years from today.
How does it look in higher positions? Vice Chancellor of KI: woman. Director: man. (Deputies both women and men). Board of directors: seven people: four men, three women.
Out of 26 departments and units, it seems like five heads are women (19%).
Comparison between the countries
Lastly, I have compared how group leader positions looked in 2011 and 2015 in the three places I worked at.
Why the block in career advancement?
There is an obvious halt in the academic pipeline as the roles become more complex and more rewarding.
Why is that?
In order to earn a doctorate, one has to work hard, publish papers, be smart enough to write up the publication and defend it. Most of the people starting their positions are capable of it (even if they drop off, they drop off for the other reasons, not the lack of capacity).
To become a professor or a group leader one needs a different set of attributes and resources. Publishing well is still a prerequisite. This differs from the time when one is a PhD student, when it is in the interest of the professor to see a student finish (monetary incentive, freeing a lab space, getting rid of half depressed and disilusioned person). As a postdoc one is a likely future collaborator or competitor of a group leader one presently works for. Postdoc needs a massive support of a professor, not only in the equipment and access to facilities to do experiments, but also when applying for grants and publishing. To lend a supportive arm becomes a very personal decision, and is often based on more than the academic merit.
People sitting on the research council are people responsible for evaluating and handing out the grants. On average they are in their 50s and 60s, they know each other, and are also more inclined to put their rosy glasses on when they see a familiar name. How to become a part of this exclusive club? The recruitment for the position in such a council is mostly not clear.
Further, studies on gender bias in grant awarding show the existing pattern of promoting men. And on top of that, it seems that in the same grant application process women thend to ask for less money compared to men.
In order to obtain research grants one needs to go through a not always and not fully objective assessment (often including a “predisposition to a family life” as a negative influence on a career).
Is recruiting a problem?
Yes, it is one of the problems.
Hiring is a highly emotional process. One will tend to hire people that make them stay in their comfort zone. And try to avoid hiring people that don’t tick the comfort boxes.
Typing words diversity or equal opportunities is not enough. These words need to be lived, pushing out the “equal opportunities” job ad is only the beginning.
Hiring in academia is an unclear process, usually involves friend and acquaintance circles. The situation found in the workplace reflects also personal preferences and what type of people one might hang out with privately. To make it clear, this is not the best way to decide things when using public, taxpayers money.
Culture in a work place is palpable. People coming for an interview will feel it, and turn on their heels if they sense an overpowering stench of inequality or exclusivity.
When having diverse people in the group, make everyone feel safe and included in decisions important for them.
Breeding culture of the sameness is a road to failure and destruction. It will kill the diversity of thought, and lead to a failure of empathy. The problem solving drive will weaken and serve only the plastic majority in power. In the end it will work against them too.
In academia, as a woman one is still predominantly expected to put the family and raising offspring as the primary and exclusive goal, and is expected to be subpar at fulfilling academic duties when compared to a man.
Peers disregard career of women colleagues and solely worry for their own career, which is very much driven under the threat of “publish or perish”. Some of my friends in that positions have a less aggressive, but sadly, a pretty similar view.
A tremendous advancement in technology can compensate for having both family and work as a priority: equipment in the labs is more advanced, more automated, and for sure makes processes faster and life easier. This means men can spend more quality family time too.
While lab heads probably understand the empathy, they do not accept it wholeheartedly. They learned there is only one way to reach a goal. That is through seeing everyone else as a competitor for your own resources and as a liability to their own career.
I have participated in many panel discussions, and what I find extra disturbing is rare women in high positions giving this advice “just make a good plan and work towards it”. What they have given is not an advice, they have just built a wall. They have underestimated the intelect of people asking them the question.
Thinking of some simple questions: What type of support did you have to get where you are today? Who was your mentor? What was specifically tough and unfair? And how did you overcome it, or shelter yourself from it? Whom to avoid, and whom to ask for help/mentorship? Do you still have to fight the prejudice? What type of a person are you? What has changed? What are you doing from the inside to change the opinion of the plastic majority? Can you openly voice your opinions? All of them? Always? Offer mentorship, pay it forward.
The demoralizing fact is that the lack of diversity and women in high positions will likely not to be resolved during my work career. I dislike to think of the next thirty years of my career spent in a world where I feel hampered by that fact. I would like to use my time better, for instance improving the current status of human healthcare.
Pluralism of thought and diversity will win someday. Believe it or not, we are going towards it, despite the occasional failure in humanity and electing wrong people for important positions. No person will stop the progress. No single person ever did it.
How about a general understanding that:
- People can have both a family and a career.
- Nobody should assume for anyone else what a person wants and will do in life
- Judge on merits only and learn that your workplace should be a safe, inclusive place for all, not only for the lab head.
- Accommodate for people’s needs. If they have children, be aware they need to leave work at a certain time. Respect that.
To the decision makers: Let people’s choices be their own choices. Do not presume their actions on the basis of who you think they are. Do not judge where they should stop with their achievements.
Disclaimer (I am sorry for the omissions)
In order to facilitate the overview, I have equalized professors and group leaders, some junior leaders might have mistakenly been placed in the postdocs group. I have used generalizations in my conclusion, and before some people start stating: “Oh no, not all men are like that”, while I agree with you, perhaps understand that there are a lot of them which are, and this piece is not meant for people to get defensive, but constructive.
In this piece I did not discuss diversity of any other minorities, ethnicities, cultural or educational backgrounds, skin, diversity in a way of expressing oneself, diversity in a choice of sexual partner(s) or a diversity of thought. I am considering writing another piece about this. It will take considerably more effort, as the statistics are not freely available online.
For a true diversity one should consider a broader aspect, also I apologize if I have unintentionally put anyone in a cohort they feel they don’t belong to.
Lastly, I am always happy to participate in thought promoting events. I will always say yes to them. Events such as WiDS and other women influencer events are important and good, giving an opportunity to a new type of entrepreneurs, scientist and businesspeople to have their voices heard.