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An ‘unfavorable environment’ for female scientists

Teams of female scientists tend to pursue different questions than teams of men. That alone makes the case for diversity in the lab (and beyond). Emilie Marcus of Cell Press tells DW why it’s not happening yet.
DW: Why is it so important to have gender equality in science?

Emilie Marcus: Science itself teaches us that diversity of perspectives and thinking is the way to move things forward. It’s where ideas come from. If you continue with a confined set up of homogenous thinking, you’re not really advancing very far. So it’s really important – in science, as everywhere – to have that degree of diversity, and bring different perspectives together. Gender is one of those key elements of diversity … thinking and question-asking and problem-solving will be better when we bring in the perspectives that come from a diverse team approaching the issues.

Would you say there are some issues that have not been raised, just because there were not enough female scientists?

There are ways of thinking that haven’t been explored, because there is not the representation of women addressing those issues. I don’t know if the issues themselves are unique. We do have some evidence from the recently released gender report that teams of women scientists working together tend to address different types of issues than mixed teams, or teams of men working together. So there is some evidence that women would address issues that may not always get addressed.

Could you give us exampIes? What kind of issues would women address more?

They might be more sensitive and aware of the social impact of research and different types of social input into research – more open to the human side of research and how data interacts with the environment and society … [T]hey also tend to be more inclusive and more open to different kinds of perspectives and trying to understand how those fit with the thinking. They might be more likely to see a different angle. Something a more narrow group of thinkers would not come to from this perspective.

Going by your own experience, would you say that male researchers more often support their own (male) peers?

I tend to try to avoid those kinds of generalizations. It can be dangerous if you generalize male scientist versus female scientists. There are different kinds of approaches that men might take. Men have a sort of broad, spectrum way [of thinking]. So that makes the difference. I certainly think that any group that becomes very homogeneous – be it an all-female or all-male group – tends to look for members that match their homogeneous set. I think it’s important to avoid, in any group, becoming homogeneous, because it’s very hard, then, to let in newcomers or new ideas.

The issue of gender equality is nothing really new. The data’s there. But nothing changes. Why is that?

I think it’s worth looking at the actual structure of science itself. First of all, it’s very competitive, and it’s getting even more competitive. So you start with a very competitive playing field, and on top of that, you add that the structure of academic research, which is very individualistic. Awards are awarded to individuals, the positions at universities are awarded to individuals, and there is not much of a team aspect in science. So if you start with something that is very competitive and individualistic and if you think of those Olympic sport runners, anyone – male or female – the more they sacrifice for the training and the success of their career, the further they’ll get ahead. And that creates a sort of unfavorable environment.

Dr. Emily Marcus was invited to the “Falling Walls Conference” in Berlin, a conference on future breakthroughs in science and society. She is the editor-in-chief of Cell Press, a publisher of biomedical journals. This interview has been redacted.

Topics: environment

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