Home Health This is how science can solve its striking gender inequality problem

This is how science can solve its striking gender inequality problem

When Sarah Kaplan, professor of gender and economics at the University of Toronto, was recently invited to speak about a panel where she was the only woman, she immediately wrote that this was unforgivable.

She received an apologetic response from the organizers of the academic conference in which they said that they had tried to invite six women, but that they had not found anyone.

"They said they had worked hard to find female speakers, and I'm sure they had that," she says. "But they had to work extra hard and make extra efforts, that's how you start making change."

It is a mantra that we all know: we need more women in science. But with female researchers accounting for only a third of the scientific workforce in North America and Europe, it is clear that things are not going well with converting our benevolent feelings into hard actions.

Why is that exactly? To answer that question, medical journal The Lancet launched a special issue on February 8, 2019, devoted to mapping the causes and consequences of gender inequality in the scientific community.

This inequality starts at the beginning of the scientific process – when researchers apply for petition from lenders. It had already been shown, for example, that men were more likely than women to get funding for their research – and one of the most important studies in this issue of The Lancet indicates where and when that gender gap arises. Things start to go wrong, explain the topic, during the process of evaluating which research projects should receive public money. Assessors base their decision to invest in the scientist and not on the proposed science.

The research team, from a range of Canadian universities, analyzed nearly 24,000 applications submitted in five years to a national funding agency in Toronto. It divided the funding applications between two subsidy programs: one in which the assessment concentrated on the quality of the proposed science and one in which it concentrated on the caliber of the applicant.

Criteria for funding in the first program, for example, include "importance" and "quality" of the idea; while the second asked the candidate to demonstrate his leadership or productivity skills. In the first case, the number of proposals led by men and women receiving funding was about the same. But when funding bodies focused on assessing candidates, male applicants had 44 percent more chance of receiving government funding than female applicants.

The solution seems simple: assessments of research applications should not be accompanied by information about the candidate's gender.

Not so fast, says Holly Witteman of the University Laval in Quebec and lead author of the study. "It is very important to properly diagnose the problem," she says. "If the problem is an implicit or explicit bias against female researchers, hiding their identity is a good way to fix it, but if the problem is systemic, anonymity can only make matters worse." ;

This is because there are some inequalities in the system that can not address gender-neutral pronouns or blind evaluations. Inequalities vary from the allocation of lab spaces to sexual harassment and all of which contribute to reducing the quality of work that female researchers can produce. Witteman calls this "cumulative disadvantage".

It may be unfair to review the work of female scientists in this case on the basis of the same criteria as those of male scientists – and that is where counter-productive gender-neutral pronouns and blind assessment are counterproductive.

It turns out that the focus of science on male mammals is really bad for women

Witteman itself has a foundation grant. A quarter of the criteria to obtain it was based on her ability to show leadership in her career. "I'm in a medical school," she says, "and we've never had a female Dean, the current rector is a woman, but that's a first in the 350 years that the institution has existed." For many female researchers is defending their case against male applicants as racing against someone who has been given a head start.

Therefore, one of the solutions she suggests to adjust assessment scores for women is to take into account gender disparities that exist in the system.

"Funding groups like the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the US do those adjustments for specific groups that are disadvantaged, such as early career researchers," she says. "So that's a potential way."

Kaplan, in the newspaper that she published The Lancet, calls for similar solutions. The solution is not only to attract more women – and minorities – to the scientific workforce in order to increase diversity, but it is also crucial to bring them to a system that has been built to offer them the same opportunities as men.

More people who have historically been under-represented in certain areas – in this case women and minorities in science – without investing in mentorship and supporting them, only work counterproductive, she continues.

"That's why only focusing on diversity does not work," she says. "If you fail in the second part, which means that people really want to stay by giving them opportunities, they will eventually leave."

However, a major obstacle to inclusiveness is the nature of bias. This is because, in the case of prejudice, bias is a categorization process that is central to the way we deal.

Because of the amount of information it receives, the brain simplifies things for us by assigning the most to categories that our neocortical system has drawn during a lifetime of observation.

These categories, such as race, age or gender, originate from patterns that we perceive and define our beliefs and expectations. For example, if we are rarely exposed to female scientists, our brains will automatically consider female scientists as against the norm. And when something is embedded in the brain in such a way, changing it is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

If gender preconception is endemic, does this mean that there is little hope for women who want to have a scientific career? Kaplan is the only one who does not admit defeat.

If we want people to change those categories, she says, we must begin by defining the procedures and practices of the system of which they are part. "What we've done so far," she says, "is simply to tell people that they are biased and hope that they will change their behavior, that's not working, we need to give them the tools to do this."

When evaluating research papers, for example, auditors can have checklists – "scientists love checklists, why can not they have one?", She asks – to ensure that criteria are adjusted when viewing papers submitted by women.

This is not just about defending the democratic ideal of equality – not that something is wrong with that. But in another study published by The Lancet shows that it is also the quality of scientific research that is strongly related to the gender of the scientists who lead it.

The pay differentials between women and men are useful, but it is only the first step

Studies conducted by two women, indeed, are 26 percent more likely to report on both male and female models than those who are not. And this is important, because the same study, after analyzing 11.5 million research articles published between 1980 and 2016, showed that nearly 70 percent of them did not report on the results for both men and women.

Sex is responsible for many biological differences in vulnerability to heart disease or autoimmune problems, and many others. And the effects of science of lack of care for sexual variations are already known. Consumer organization DrugWatch estimates that women have twice as many chances to develop a side effect on medication than men, for example. This is due to the fact that many medicines have been developed on the basis of male models; and now this study shows that this is more likely when research is done by men.

Although that can not of course directly demonstrate that the inclusion of more female scientists in the workforce will lead directly to more sex-diverse research, it is a fair assumption to make that case, says lead author Vincent Lariviere of the University of Montreal.

More should therefore be done to increase the funding of female-led research, or to impose the study of both sexes as a criterion for the allocation of grants. But that is not everything. "We do not just need more women in the system," says Lariviere, "but more women in managerial positions, so they can determine which research needs to be done."

And the implications go far behind science. For Witteman, equating scientific equality is a matter of public health: "these are public dollars and they are scarce," she says. "It is important that they are assigned to research that will effectively improve public health – for men and for women."

Sarah Kaplan's five solutions for achieving gender equality in medicine

1. Treat gender equality as a challenge for innovation

When you introduce a new initiative to increase productivity in the workplace, you are usually armed with tools to measure success and openness to potential failure. Gender equality is the same, Kaplan says. We must consistently measure how inclusive the scientific community is, to keep it responsible – but more importantly so that we can change tactics when old ways of working cease.

2. Change institutional standards

It sounds ambitious and ambitious – but according to Kaplan, the key to change is leadership. "If you are privileged, you are responsible," she says. It is basic behavioral science: if leaders stop discriminating attitudes, this will affect the way their employees react. And when everyone around them seems to give diversity value, individuals will sooner participate in the bandwagon.

3. Make people responsible for change

It is not enough to impose diversity training or anti-prejudice programs on individuals who are likely to resist something that they are strongly committed to meet. That dynamic changes when someone is made personally responsible for the success of someone else. Kaplan advocates the introduction of sponsorship programs, for example, in which sponsors feel invested in the career of their protégés.

4. Write guidelines and make plans

In the same way, we have to go a step further than simply telling people that they are prejudiced and leave them with a series of values ​​that they should strive for. There are concrete solutions that can be shown to individuals to help them change their behavior. For example, the successful success in the STEM consortium has created a worksheet as a starting point for organizations to determine their goals for inclusiveness.

5. Make organizations responsible

"What is being measured is done" is a maxim that must also be applied to diversity. And measurements of progress must of course be taken at the level of the individual, but also at the level of the organization. That is why we need to create a larger institution, Kaplan says, to monitor and monitor the progress of our entire system in the field of diversity.

Updated 08.02.19, 17:20 GMT: This article has been updated to better reflect the views of Sarah Kaplan on quota.

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