Why gender parity matters in the sciences (and beyond)
She approached the podium and unassumingly grasped the microphone. Leaning back ever so slightly she began softly, tentatively. The sound raised to a crescendo, initially silencing the crowd that finally responded with a roar.
The first time I saw Dr Jane Goodall, she opened her talk with her trademark chimpanzee pant-hoot. The call was transformational, capturing my attention and transporting me to the tropical forests of Africa. Although I had been fascinated by the great apes as a young girl, it was not until I learned more about the ‘Leakey Women, that I developed a deeper conviction to my own development as a scientist. These women (and Leakey’s recognition of them) were an anomaly of the time, but undoubtedly a catalyst for the changes that women in science followed. The number of women working in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) jumped from 7% in Goodall’s time in the 1970s to 23% in 1990. The rise was laudable and indicative of the strides made towards gender parity in STEM subjects. But, just two decades later, we’ve practically stalled.
Today women are earning approximately half of the doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering, likely in part due to shifts in societal perceptions and targeted outreach efforts to nurture the scientific interests of young women and girls. But there remains a despairing and pernicious gap at the post-doctoral level and beyond that has proven difficult to shift. Despite roughly equivalent graduates, women comprise only 21% of full professors in science and 5% in engineering, earning 16% less than their male counterparts in the US (even less in Europe). Research suggests that these inequities persist in part due to greater childcare expectations falling on women as well as the lack of female representatives in senior and leadership positions.
In 2005, the UK Equality Challenge Unit established the Athena SWAN Charter to help institutions of higher education achieve gender parity. I take solace in these efforts and strive to be a visible role model to other women and girls (boys and men, too), whilst also recognising that we still have a long way to go.
Reflecting on my own experience pursuing research in tropical ecology in East Africa, I recognize an additional barrier that I am not party to – colour. Over the past ten years, I have had the privilege of working with many East African undergraduate students – primarily men but increasingly women. These women contend with many of the same issues that I experience in western culture, arguably worse. Rwanda is perhaps exceptional in its efforts to achieve gender parity, having the highest representation of women in its lower house of government of any nation (64%). While impressive, the country follows the trend at higher levels, where female representation drops to 39%, below the nations of Germany and Belgium.
So how do we move gender parity in the sciences forward in a time when women’s equality seems to be backsliding? Align yourself with people, male and female, that support your advancement, empathise with the hurdles that girls and women face, and critically, are willing to speak out if the dice is loaded. I was deeply moved by the recent women’s marches in protest to Trump’s misogynistic and discriminatory policies; the largest (and most peaceful) protest in US history was well attended by both sexes.
Similarly, the 500 Women Scientists, a movement in its infancy, counters the anti-women and anti-science sentiments of the new US President and, at the time of writing, includes more than 15,000 signatories from 109 countries. Perhaps the stall in our advancement to gender parity is in part due to the complacency to which the political climate has given us a courteous kick. Let us channel our responses into critical and productive actions that recognise girls and women as individuals with aspirations and deep potential on par with that of their male counterparts. Support our male colleagues and partners that are also parents to spend equal time with their children. There is no shame in a household with a female breadwinner, but there is in men being paid more than their female equals.
ls there a human equivalent of the pant-hoot that can ignite the imaginations of women and girls to pursue paths to leadership? Ms May, Moms, Dads, Teachers, Religious leaders - can we get some transforming pant-hoots?
 The Leakey Women refers to Drs Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey and Birute Galdikas, mentored initially by the late paleoanthropologist, Louis Leakey, in their study of the great apes – chimpanzee, mountain gorilla, and orangutans, respectively.
 US Census Bureau within Del Guidice, M. Nov 8, 2014. Why it’s crucial to get more women into science. National Geographic (accessed 26 Jan 17: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/11/141107-gender-studies-women-scientific-research-feminist/)
 US National Science Foundation within Schen, H. 2013. Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap. Nature 495 (7439): 22-24.
 Trump’s war on women’s rights begins (accessed 30 Jan 2017: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/juliana-buhring/trumps-war-on-womens-righ_...)