On the Power of Small Initiatives

When it comes to effecting big change, sometimes you need to think small.



The inaugural Reflections in Diversity column in the September OPN, by Ursula Keller and Anthony Johnson, described a number of challenges facing underrepresented groups in science, including women and minorities. For example, it highlighted a whole spectrum of issues that must be addressed at different levels, including attracting girls to science, encouraging them to study it at college and increasing the number of women who make science their career. At every stage, the goal is to successfully support women so that they can achieve their full potential and then serve as role models for younger generations.

A number of large-scale initiatives have aimed to address several of those issues at the same time— for example, affirmative action in the United States and programs funded by the European Union’s (EU) framework programs (FP6 and FP7) that support gender equality in Europe. They are ambitious in trying to solve the underlying problems related to the underrepresentation of women. However, in our day-to-day experiences within academia, it is often hard to see their impact.

For that reason, it is worth searching for incremental solutions that can produce small but measurable changes, while broader policies get worked out at a higher level. For example, we all know that outreach programs in schools can serve as a powerful inspiration to young girls. At the same time, it is also critical to focus on supporting women who already have scientific careers. This is an area where local, university-based actions can make a real difference at the academic “front line.”

Where we’ve been, where we must go

Women in science have come a long way over the past 30 years. Take the example of Jocelyn Bell Brunell, the British astrophysicist who did not share the 1974 Nobel Prize with her male colleagues for the discovery of radio pulsars, despite the fact that she helped to build the telescope that detected the pulsars and that she was the one to notice and record the anomaly.

Academia has changed quite a bit since then. Not only have people’s attitudes evolved, but so has the support provided to scientists with children. While in some countries child care costs remain very high, at least such care is generally available—which wasn’t the case three decades ago. For countless women in past generations, the choice was hard indeed—either pursue a professional career or have a family, but not both.

These improvements are partly due to the fact that today’s young scientists—both men and women—have spouses with full-time professional careers. The traditional idea of a scientist as a man who can devote all of his energy and time to his work, while his wife stays at home or works part-time to care for children, is increasingly the model of the past. In younger generations, everyone has to juggle work and family commitments, and a true partnership at home is a real asset.

For junior female scientists, however, the reality of what it’s like to juggle dual professional careers and family commitments often becomes apparent only at the end of graduate school. Ph.D. students are generally very well looked after, and young people often don’t start thinking about settling down and seeking a job until that point.

Fortunately, there are champions who are advancing small-scale initiatives aimed at those who require flexibility during this critical early phase of their career. An example in the United Kingdom has been the Royal Society, which for the past 16 years has offered Dorothy Hodgkin Research fellowships; these are portable between institutions and flexible enough to allow for child care and family commitments.

But more work must be done. While facilities and provisions for child care and maternity/paternity leave are better than ever, the modern pace of work in academia has moved the goal post for many. We work in a very competitive environment in which we all face a chronic lack of time and the pressure to work nonstop. Multitasking and overloaded schedules go with the territory. The question therefore remains: What can universities, as well as R&D companies, do to realize the potential and talent of their scientists over the long term? How can we prevent female (and some male) scientists with excellent track records from abandoning their careers because they think it’s too difficult to balance work and family?

The power of small

Quite often the real difference comes from small steps. By introducing incremental changes in their policies and the support they offer to those with caring responsibilities, universities, learned societies and organizations can truly make a real difference. In addition to helping individuals, such schemes work as models that can be implemented elsewhere. Importantly, those programs do not necessarily involve large sums of money.

For example, the EU and Research Executive Agency have for years pursued a commendable policy of encouraging women to take part in research and to act as reviewers for European projects. This open and inclusive policy, in which well-qualified women are actively recruited, has been much more beneficial to both junior and senior female scientists than large sponsored projects dedicated to improving gender equality. Furthermore, all of the FP7 Marie Curie projects have recruitment targets of obtaining at least 40 percent women among the researchers involved in a given project. Although it is not compulsory to meet those targets, the onus is on project coordinators to prove that their recruitment process has been thorough and transparent.

Leadership workshops for women are another worthwhile pursuit. Geraldine Richmond from the University of Oregon has championed such workshops for chemists. This excellent initiative has been running for years in the United States, and it is now attached to major chemical conferences. One might hope that leading optics societies—including OSA, SPIE and the European Optical Society—will consider extending this approach to optical physicists and engineers.

Small-step changes can happen at every level. At the University of Southampton, we have been running Women in Science, Engineering and Technology (WiSET)—a voluntary group that offers networking opportunities—for the past 10 years. WiSET participants work to find opportunities to achieve a better gender balance in science as well as a better work-life balance. We also celebrate the success of other women scientists. Some of our ideas and role models come from lectures given at Southampton, including talks by Jocelyn Bell Brunnell and Geraldine Richmond.

Small initiatives are easy to implement. For example, a few years ago, WiSET members convinced our University to take part in the plan that allows tax deductions for some child care costs—which helped save money for many working academics. Recently, we proposed that the University consider allowing child care fees during conference travel as allowable costs to be reimbursed. Several funding organizations, including the Royal Society and the EU, regard this as an expense that can be reimbursed from their grants. Ideally, conference organizers could also make another small-step change, such as choosing conference venues where on-site child care is available.

It is often such small changes that make our lives easier and prevent us from having to choose between a professional career and family commitments. And that makes a huge difference. t

Malgosia Kaczmarek is a professor of physics at the University of Southampton, United Kingdom, and the chair of WiSET.

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On the Power of Small Initiatives

When it comes to effecting big change, sometimes you need to think small.

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