Researcher Engagement

How Research Societies Can Support Women in STEM

A number of factors deter women from pursuing research careers, the main ones being lopsided family and childcare responsibilities, role stereotypes, and inconducive work environments. For women who do stay on in STEM and academia, gender disparities are evident in the form of fewer female authors, fewer citations, and lower recognition vis-à-vis their male counterparts across disciplines and countries. The overall male:female author ratio is 73:27 across disciplines and countries, with male authors receiving 30% more citations than female authors do. Add to that the Matilda effect or the under-recognition of women’s contributions to scientific and technological fields, with their work being attributed to male colleagues. It’s not surprising, therefore, that women are underrepresented in leadership roles in STEM as well. While the proportion of women university students was >50% in 2017, the global share of female researchers was a dismal 30% the same year.

However, there are some encouraging trends. Central Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean regions have a healthy share of women researchers (49% and 46%, respectively). Venezuela has the highest national percentage with over 60%. Further, research institutes, academic societies, and journals are stepping up efforts to support and encourage women in STEM.

Why we need more women in STEM

Increasing the presence of women in STEM fields is important for driving change, both societal and overall. Here are some ways by which a healthy representation of women in research can benefit science and technology.

Better representation means better results: Women constitute half of the world’s potential workforce, calling for a balanced representation that reflects the diversity of the population. Teams with diverse perspectives will be more efficient at problem-solving and decision-making, will be more innovative, and will produce better outcomes that account for inclusive and diverse needs.

Economic benefits: Having more women in STEM fields can lead to economic benefits by increasing the pool of qualified workers and contributing to the growth of the economy. Closing of the gender pay gap can help reduce income inequality, increase the spending power of women, and improve the overall standard of living.

Social justice and equality: Promoting equal opportunities in education and career choices for both genders will foster a balanced society. By increasing the presence of women in STEM fields, more inclusive and innovative workplaces can be created, thereby improving the representation of women in leadership positions and contributing to a more equitable society. This is also important to solve the “leaky pipeline” effect observed in academia.

Inspiring future generations: Today’s female role models will set an example for future generations. New roles for women in STEM-related industries will expand the talent pool and inspire future female researchers.

Ways in which research societies are supporting women in STEM

In recognition of the need for a balanced gender representation in academia, many research societies are supporting women researchers by implementing various initiatives.

1. Offering grants and awards: Some research societies offer grants and awards specifically for women in STEM fields to support their research and professional development. One such offering is Nature’s Inspiring Women in Science awards—one for Science Outreach and the other for Scientific Achievement. These awards recognize and support the achievements of women in science, as well as those working to enthuse young women to take up STEM careers.

The American Physical Society (APS) offers Grants for Women in Physics (WiP) groups to graduate and undergraduates for networking events, career workshops, lab tours, field trips, etc.

2. Providing training, mentorship, and career development opportunities: Certain STEM disciplines, such as engineering, physics, and mathematics, fare the worst in female representation. Some research societies provide training and workshops to help women in such fields develop new skills and advance in their careers. The APS encourages the recruitment, retention, and career development of women physicists at all levels through conferences, professional skill development seminars, and internships.

Similarly, the Society of Women Engineers supports women in engineering and technology fields through mentorship, networking, and professional development opportunities.

3. Active focus on diversity, equality, and inclusion: Research societies are actively working to increase the representation of women in leadership positions and on boards and committees. Journals and scholarly societies are taking a resolute stance on improving their profiles in terms of diversity, equality, and inclusion (DEI). Many professional societies have a DEI committee working towards this goal in research, clinical practice, and scholarly communication. The BMJ and its journals are an excellent example of championing the cause for more women in STEM. Some of the key changes they are implementing in the running of their journals are as follows:

  • Ensuring 50:50 gender representation and increased diversity in The BMJ’s Editorial Board
  • Inviting equal numbers of men and women as peer reviewers
  • Identifying authors for editorials in a gender-balanced manner
  • Ensuring gender-balanced judging panels for awards, as well as completely doing away with “manels” (all-men panels).

4. Offering support and promoting flexibility: Research societies are also promoting flexibility in work arrangements to help women balance their professional and personal responsibilities. Childcare grants are an encouraging practice for meeting attendees bringing small children or incurring extra expenses in leaving their children at home. Notable examples of societies offering childcare grants to encourage female attendees at conferences, meetings, and symposia are the American Mathematical Society, Materials Research Society, and EMBO.

Concluding notes

Professional research societies are encouraging more women to pursue careers in STEM by providing support in an array of forms. The adoption of such measures by societies and journals of all disciplines and across geographies will help create a more inclusive and equitable environment for women in academia and ensure that their contributions are recognized and valued.

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