Monday, July 7, 2014

FENS symposium on women in science

My blog has had an empty post labeled “Women in science” for a very long time, but as I collected ideas and links, I was never sure how to fill it and what to say that would be new on the subject. I always teeter between “We need to do something about this!” and “Stop complaining, already!”, so it was actually great to be at the Women in Neuroscience networking social at the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) meeting in Milan on July 6th. Both reactions were validated.

Having attended half a dozen of these events at various American conferences throughout the years, I was shocked to hear that this was the first time FENS dedicated symposium to its female members, but after all it is the first time the federation has a female president. FENS president Marian Joels together with Society for Neuroscience (SfN) president Carol Mason just wrote a wonderful opinion piece about women in science in Neuron. At the symposium the two presidents presented statistics from Europe and the US showing how gender equality still lags behind in the STEM subjects: women represent 41% of PhD students in the US and 46% in the EU, but females are only a fraction of the full professor cohort (28% in the US, 20% in the EU). Joels remarked that in very liberal Netherlands, where she works, only 13% of academics are female. Female department chairs are even scarcer: 10% in the US and 15% in the EU. The only beacon of equality is Norway, where 31% of department chair are female because of a goal of a 40% quote imposed by the government. At the current rate it will take the rest of Europe until 2050 to get to similar numbers…

Talking about quotas always makes people uncomfortable, but Joels indicated that 30% seems to be the tipping point to change the culture in the workplace and that it would indeed make a difference to get things started. Both societies strive to achieve gender balance in presentations. SfN will have 50/50 plenary lecturers this year in Washington, DC, and FENS had 42% in Milan. FENS also forbade single gender symposia. Half of FENS participants are female, but in the past up to 90% of speakers have been male. Both Mason and Joels advocated the creation of a formal list of female speakers at all stages of their career, similar to Anne’s list (a resource created by Anne Churchland to increase gender balance in neuroscience meetings).

SfN has also created multiple resources for women and gender equality, from recognizing gender bias to training for department chairs that can be found here.

The need for mentoring at all levels and for the creating of peer groups was stressed by everyone and mentoring was discussed by Martha Davila-Garcia an associate professor at Howard University and a representative of Women in World Neuroscience at the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO). WWN is focused on mentoring especially in developing countries and has hosted "mentoring circles" at numerous neuroscience conferences. Dr. Davila-Garcia gave a great summary of what you must do to be a good mentor and a good mentee. I have already stressed how important mentoring is in general (here), but it is particularly crucial for women to have multiple supporters and role models (male and female).

Finally, Ilona Obara, a lecturer at Durham University, and Sarah Nickolls, an expert scientist at Neusentis Pfizer, described their career path in academia and industry respectively: balancing career and families, sometimes compromising with their husbands on what to do next. Dr. Obara concluded her talk with suggestions for starting academics: 1) negotiate your startup and salary as much as you can; 2) build allies in your department and outside; 3) learn to prioritize tasks and know that you will never get to the bottom of the pile. Dr. Nickolls did the same for industry: 1) take opportunities as they are offered to you since you may regret it later; 2) develop transferable skills that can be used in any drug development project so that you can change therapeutic area; 3) be change agile, i.e. be ready to lose your job or look for opportunities elsewhere.

The general idea of the meeting was: "Let's identify the problems to tackle and come up with solutions together!"

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