Friday 8th March is International Women’s Day – a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The theme for 2019 is Balance for Better. Find out more on Twitter by following @womensday and using #IWD2019 and #BalanceforBetter.
Pursuing balance in challenging working environments
I knew I wanted to be a forest ecologist since a very early age. I was born in a rural region of a country with a remarkable machismo culture, and that at the time it was just getting back to democracy after more than four decades of dictatorship. However, I grew up in an environment in which no one ever told me I could not do something because of my gender, so I grew up dreaming of becoming a forest scientist and travelling to the most remote areas of the world; this is what ultimately made me who I am today. I never thought that I should be denied an opportunity because of my gender or culture, and this certainty has helped me to deal with and overcome many gender issues I have come across throughout my career.
I will illustrate this with an example. Many years ago I led a long and challenging field campaign in a country where I had not worked in before, which had a very different culture and society to what I had previously known. My local collaborator (a fantastic man) hired a large field team before my arrival, which consisted of mostly men. On the first day with the team I presented the working plan I had designed and allocated tasks and responsibilities to different people (which I had just met) without taking into account gender or age. I soon realised that the team did not accept my authority, they would not only overlook my instructions but also ignore me when I asked them to do something. They talked in their local language, so I could not understand what they were saying but I felt they were laughing at me. Regardless of my internal despair, I would be the first to get up and the last to go to bed every single day, and I engaged with the work as hard as I could. I tried to show them that to me there were no gender differences: I would not let any man carry things for me, I would dig soils and undertake heavy work. But none of this would improve things much.
I eventually realised that I had to somehow make them feel responsible and involve them in the team management, so they did not feel that a foreign woman was trying to command them. I called a general meeting and I re-organised the team and changed the way of operating: I suggested creating small groups of 4-5 people and that each group would be responsible for a task. Each group would have a coordinator that would rotate among themselves (so each person would be group leaders eventually) and would coordinate the work schedule and logistics with me. There were daily evening briefings with the team leaders where we discussed matters of the day and tasks for the following day. They organised the teams and work tasks among themselves. The change was remarkable and the work started flowing; the team atmosphere could not have been better. They also started a joke-game about earning points to marry me – something that would be unthinkable in my normal working environment, but there I took as a joke and I even engaged with it. I still frequently had to make critical decisions based on my knowledge and experience; however, I did it in a way that didn’t come across as imposing and instead allowed it to emerge from facilitated team discussions. They learned to respect me and I learned to respect them. Today, many years later, I still keep in touch with most of them and we maintain an excellent relationship.
I could provide many such examples, and certainly some less pleasant than others, but I firmly believe that the best way to pursue your professional career in a gender imbalanced and multicultural context is with a passion for learning, developing mutual respect, and openness for growth. Embrace your journey!
Imma Oliveras, Associate Editor of Journal of Ecology
One couple, 2 countries – one soul, two body situation
“Nothing worth having comes easy” – Theodore Roosevelt
Achieving the right work/life balance for me was very challenging. In the last year and 3 months, I’ve taken 70 flights and 140 bus (or train) journeys and 70 taxi (or bus) rides to balance my passion for science and my family life.
Until October 2017 I was a research fellow at University of Essex, UK. In November 2017 I took up a position in GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Marine Science, Kiel, Germany. My husband had a permanent job at a multinational company and was based in London. He enjoyed his work and I didn’t want him to compromise his career because of my job location change. He supported my career development as I did his. To maintain a balance, I negotiated an 80% position and started commuting between UK and Germany every week.
My PhD at GEOMAR did not come easily. It took me 2 years to receive a fellowship from India and then move to Germany. After my PhD and following a family care break, I received my first big research grant as PI to execute my 1st postdoc at GEOMAR. My husband and I had long distance relationship for 6 years with no work/life balance. I was very unhappy. Initially I was commuting 14-16h a week. But then due to unforeseen travel circumstances I had to detour and commute 20h a week for a year. I seldom got questions from colleagues “Isn’t it exhausting?” However, I prefer to focus on the positive side and the glass is rather half full for me than half empty. All my desk work was done at airports, buses and trains. So, the commute worked to my advantage in some ways and I could strike work/life balance, which made me not only happy but also more productive, I believe. The situation has changed now – I have recently received a fellowship to carry on with my research in the UK.
Female academics are not barbie dolls!
While I was striking a balance between work and life, I started noticing the lack of gender balance in science. I didn’t realize this issue when I was new in academia, but as I progressed, I noticed gender imbalance in office meetings, among representatives within research department, selection/evaluation committee, panels (rather Manels!) and conferences – way more male invited speakers than females! This also includes questions from audience; it is mostly men asking questions.
In an institutional seminar, although a fair number of female students and scientists were present – out of 10 questions, 7 came from males and just 3 from female scientists including 2 questions from me. This has happened in many seminars. Apparently, many lab heads just don’t see this issue? Isn’t it our duty to find out the reason for this? Impostor syndrome is quite common in women although my female colleagues are good scientists. It is our duty to encourage them so that they find their voice in the scientific community. They are not meant to be “barbie dolls” and supporting actresses. They have the power to be a lead actor and have the right to voice their opinion!
What can we do?
1. In scientific endeavours, both male and female academics must make a conscious effort with #genderequality. As an example: I recently wrote a research topic for Frontiers in Marine Science and while recruiting co-editors I deliberately ensured there were 2 males and 2 females (including me). Not just gender balance, I also aimed for geographical diversity by recruiting one editor from Brazil, one from Spain, one from France, and then myself from Germany/UK. So, if you are arranging a project or session, recruit with #genderequality in mind. These days there are fantastic platforms like @500womensci where you can find female speakers to invite.
2. When a woman scientist voices her opinion or learns to voice her opinion, be assertive (just like a male scientist) and stand up for her rights – do not tag her as a difficult person. Rather pay attention to her opinion, her goals and create a positive, supportive environment with equal opportunities so that she gets a fair chance to succeed in academia along with her male colleagues.
Mahasweta Saha, Associate Editor of Journal of Ecology