Alison Woodward: “Science quality improves when gender diversity comes into play”

Alison Woodward: “Science quality improves when gender diversity comes into play”

On 13 September 2017, the Equal Opportunity (EO) Programme of the NCCR LIVES, in collaboration with the EO Office and the Interfaculty Platform on Gender (PlaGe) of the University of Lausanne, organised an event on the topic of "Integrating Gender in Science". Prof. Alison Woodward, a renowned specialist of those questions, gave a presentation about what has been done so far to improve women’s access to top academic positions, and what remains to be done. Her talk was followed by a round table discussion with other concerned scholars.

"There has been considerable change in my lifetime, including the fact that increasingly good science is being seen as science that takes considerations of gender seriously on board". When meeting scholars at the University of Lausanne last September, Prof. Alison Woodward, from the RHEA Center for Gender and Diversity and the Institute for European Studies of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, pointed out why there has been so little progress in gendering science, why it is important and what tools are today available to help make it happen.

Alison Woodard mentioned the constitutional and legal developments which have taken place in Europe over the last decades, and the various specialized government institutions accountable for gender equality progress. She listed different women’s interest groups which exerted citizen pressure, and insisted on the importance of the leadership from powerful research organisations.

She stated that "at least in Europe the comparator on scientific achievement remains the US, and the diversity of their labs, in terms of gender as well as ethnicity, is an important benchmark". As far as Switzerland is concerned, she considered that Swiss gender experts are "world leaders in addressing gender diversity issues in science" — at least in theory, she specified, through existing regulations and due monitoring.

Some progress has been made, but problems continue to exist at higher levels of scientific careers. As Alison Woodward showed, the most recent data indicate that women made up 47% of PhD graduates in the European Union, but made up only 33% of researchers and 21% of top-level researchers. It is even lower at the level of heads of institutions with a mere 20%.

"Mixed groups work better"

Alison Woodward put forward that mixed and diverse scientific work forces improve the emotional health of scientific teams, and can contribute to research into wider domains. "Research shows that mixed groups work better", she said, but "the underrepresentation of women is a clear indicator that there are unfair barriers on the pathway to power and performance in science." She added that "not utilising these highly skilled people is an enormous economic waste", as training scientists is costly for society.

During her presentation, Alison Woodward gave many examples and links to resources regarding diverse endeavours (see below). She declared: "On the one hand, I think there is a need to let researchers know that they do not have to reinvent the wheel, as there are almost too many wheels to count when it comes to good advice on how to achieve gender balance. However, on the other hand, given the political sociologists habitual cynicism about much talk, and good promises, but no action, and little monitoring — in reality, change has gone so slowly — so that the classic question ‘Why so Slow?’ still echoes when one looks at the depressing stagnant figures, and occasional backslides showing that it is still often the case that the success rate of men in all categories is better than women."

The debate that followed her talk headed in the same direction. René Levy, professor emeritus of the University of Lausanne, Farinaz Fassa, sociology professor at the University of Lausanne, Damien Michelet, coordinator of the Interfaculty Platform on Gender (PlaGe), and Carole Clair Willi, physician at CHUV, agreed that most of the time problems of gender inequality are not so much rooted inside the academic structures but ahead in society stratification and role models. They supported the idea that every research proposal should ensure a female representation in the research teams, and that research projects addressing human issues should systematically adopt a gender perspective in the research questions, whatever the scientific discipline is.