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IFS Working Towards Gender Equity: Some Views on Women in Science

Published: 2020-04-30

Our new IFS strategy for 2021-2030 has the theme of Investing in Future Scientists. This year of 2020 is one of transition, where we are continuing with elements of the “old” strategy as we begin incorporating parts of the “new”. To learn from this process, we are reflecting on it in several ways, for example, through these monthly blog posts. I will be highlighting our experiences as the IFS Secretariat and I also invite others in the IFS family to share any reflections they may have.

Nighisty Ghezae, DirectorNighisty Ghezae, IFS Director

As mentioned in February’s blog post, as we began implementing elements of our new strategy for 2021-2030, we were not sure whether we would get as many women applicants as before, since the eligibility criteria are now based on academic age, instead of biological age. However, as in recent years, 30% of applications came from women. This reassured us that we have not taken a step backwards, and still have progress to make towards equity in the grants being awarded to women and men. We allow for eligibility exceptions, when calculating the post-PhD years, so that time taken for maternity or paternity leave, for example, does not count towards academic age, and therefore improves gender equity in our eligibility criteria.

Our new strategy has among its supporting documents the Gender Policy of IFS, with this goal:

IFS aims to be gender-responsive, promote gender equity and equality, and ensure that all its programs, interventions, activities and research serve the needs and interest of both women and men, especially working to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.

To informally and anecdotally gauge how we are doing with regards to addressing issues and needs as perceived by grantees, we drew from the responses to a 15-item survey with mostly open-ended questions that we sent in 2019 to former and present grantees in selected countries, as an element of the process that culminated in our new 2021-2030 Strategy.

In terms of essential support for women scientists, commonly mentioned by all respondents were research funding (such as grants or fellowships for individual and collaborative research); training in research and leadership skills; travel grants to carry out research at well-equipped laboratories (as well as improvements in local laboratories) and to participate in meetings, workshops and conferences; relationships with mentors and role models; publishing; and involvement in organizations or networks of women scientists. One of the women respondents wrote: “Female scientists who are established in their careers should facilitate, mentor or develop programs that can encourage women to be more involved in science and research”. And from another: “Women in science and research should get recognition on national and international stages; this will motivate other women to do more and be more competitive.”

It was noted however that efforts need to be made earlier by improving girls’ education and encouraging more women to enroll in undergraduate science programs. There is a need to develop policies for schools and communities that will improve gender equity through promotion of inclusivity and combatting gender bias in children. Awareness-raising campaigns can lead to more girls and women taking up studies and careers in STEM, and success stories of female scientists can be shared with children to foster interest in science. Even with an early start and adequate support, there still remains the need for governments to have the political will to include more women in positions of research, responsibility and decision-making, and for “academic culture” to become more inclusive and diverse.

A number of respondents spoke to the issue of finding a balance between family life and work. Specific suggestions included daycare centers at workplaces, babysitting allowances, residence facilities for women and families, scholarships that support travel with family, medical coverage for the family, flexibility in working hours (with work-from-home options) and post-maternity grants. It was also recommended that age limits be relaxed so that women can continue with research and higher degrees after child-bearing age. As one of the women commented, “We understand and solve complex problems in a career, as we do in a family, with planning and patience”.

Contrasting gender role perceptions arose between some respondents. One person wrote:

Being a woman, I faced a lot of challenges. I belong to a country where society and even science is highly male dominated. No male easily believes and accepts the science of a woman. Even my close male friends were not ready to let me move in their science circle. But then I won an IFS grant and started purchasing equipment and developing a research project. Soon, I established things and the output started to come in the form of publications and other scientific credits. People started taking notice of my science. To establish my name and science – being alone and being a woman – was the most difficult thing for me and IFS helped me in achieving my science. I firmly believe it is bringing the same miracle in the life and science of other women as well.

Comments from some of the men respondents are an indication of just how far there still is to go to make progress in gender issues, for example: “[A woman] should simply behave as a researcher, not as a woman” and “The mentality that one is entitled to something based on gender should be done away with. Only competence should be rewarded, irrespective of sex.” Two other men offered more helpful views: “I think there is a need for some cultural beliefs and values towards women to change” and “[Women] are already playing a much more significant role than ten years ago”. Indeed, some women reported that they do not experience any disadvantage, while two men observed that “women are doing a great job and they are now playing a major role in science and research” and that in his country, “the percentage of women in research is much higher than that of man (a trend that dates back several years)”. One man said, “In my department, we have problems recruiting men. About 80% of our faculty members are women”.

Personal qualities mentioned as being necessary for a career in science include hard-working, optimistic, versatile, confident, courageous, trusting and determined. It remains the aspiration of IFS to provide such women and men with equitable opportunities to further their science careers. Our Gender Strategy describes how IFS mainstreams gender in policy and practice with an aim to close the gender gap in IFS grantees and applicants through the implementation of evidence-based, gender-responsive actions using a regionally-tailored approach, while also addressing universal barriers to women in science.

With thanks 

Nighisty Ghezae



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