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UCL Home  /  Geography  /  Blog  /  Blog Entries  /  International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February

International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February

Posted by Ajay Chauhan at Feb 11, 2021 05:00 PM |

By Helene Burningham, co-chair of the UCL Women in Physical Geography network

20181107_Mallorca_1676.jpgBack in October 2019, we had the inaugural meeting of what would become the Women in Physical Geography network. Our Departmental EDI committee had run a staff survey that summer, and although not explicitly considered in the survey, we became acutely aware of the fact that despite there being over 150 female scientists across our taught and research student programmes (and far more female students than male), we had just 3 female academic staff (relative to 15 male). Not only did the challenge of supporting those students seem overwhelming, the well known 'leaky pipeline' was all too evident. The 'leaky pipeline' metaphor has been widely used to express the fall off in the representation of women as you move through the hierarchy of careers, particularly those associated with STEM subjects. In physical geography at UCL, we are a textbook example - the gender balance at the student level is firmly skewed toward female, but at Professor level, the skew is significantly toward male. That makes us part of the problem - if there is limited evidence (or precedence) of women reaching the senior positions in academia, how can we promote and encourage our female students to persevere in our discipline?

Roll on 18 months, and we are almost a year into the Covid-19 pandemic - a global event that is regularly in the headlines, not just because of the devastation it has caused, but because of the gender inequalities in its impact. Women have been more likely to a) lose their jobs [1], b) be in higher risk, front-line jobs [2], c) suffer from increased risk of gender-based violence [2], and d) prioritise care at home over their career and suffer longer-term consequences for pay and career development [3,4]. Bring in the intersections of different minority groups, and the negative impacts increase.

Our Women in Physical Geography network has been meeting regularly, providing a space to discuss some of these emerging issues, but to also understand more about what we can do to improve the equity in all aspects of our lives. A few of us recently attended (virtually) a private screening of the film 'Picture a Scientist'. Released in 2020, this film follows the experiences of female scientists in the US, chronicling the inequalities that they have endured in their careers - from sexual harassment to inherent, embedded gender discrimination. The film delivered a number of stark, and at times deeply upsetting messages about the treatment of women in science and academia. I use the work 'treatment' quite specifically here. We have often discussed in our network that UCL Geography seems like a friendly department, where we assume that sexual harassment doesn't arise, and women aren't 'treated' badly. But the film opens a door that, once opened, can't be closed. We are introduced to the iceberg analogy; the overt sexual discrimination and harassment that we would be aware of is only the tip of an iceberg that captures an almost endless array of micro-aggressions, passive bullying and exclusion, unconscious discrimination, and the imposition of male ideas on what a scientist or a professional ‘looks like’, and how career ambition and aspirations should be displayed ... At this point in the film, you realise that much of the discrimination that women scientists face is completely hidden.

Harvard psychologist Professor Mahzarin Banaji shows an example of the implicit association test, asking a class to link various words relating to scientific careers vs. words associated with the home - to male and female respectively. The class start shouting out, mostly in unison and the task is complete. Next, she asks for them to place the scientific career words to female, and home words to male. The response is muddled, confused and slow. The outcome - everyone in the class, male and female alike, found it far easier to associate scientific career words to ‘male’ than ‘female’. Everyone. Prof Banaji reflected on this - “the feeling you get as you take this test is one of utter despair. I ought to be able to associate female and male equally with science. I am, after all, a woman in science”.

Despair is a good word here, but I would like to think that we are not hopeless. We all have a part to play in improving equity in all communities. And we all need to be educated in the implicit biases that exist and how they have and are impacting women in science. Our Women in Physical Geography group is perhaps just a small step to support our collective of female scientists, but it is a step in the right direction. We welcome you to join us in future meetings to continue the conversation, and to positively and constructively educate, inform and reshape the world around us.

International Day of Women and Girls in Science, 11 February

Picture a Scientist (2020), directed by Ian Cheney and Sharon Shattuck

[1] BBC News https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-55002687

[2] Unicef https://www.unicef.org/rosa/media/6206/file/Five%20Actions%20for%20Gender%20Eqality%20in%20the%20COVID-19%20Response.pdf

[3] The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/07/how-coronavirus-is-widening-the-uk-gender-pay-gap

[4] Standford Clayman Institute for Gender Research https://gender.stanford.edu/news-publications/gender-news/covid-has-worsened-gender-disparities-especially-women-color-heres