Contributed by Bettina Schaefli, a HEPEX guest columnist for 2014
I asked whether we might want to change the composition of the medal committees to get more female awardees (the recent awardees in hydrology are displayed here for the Henry Darcy Medal and here for the John Dalton Medal).
The question had an easy answer (the composition is imposed by the EGU council), but generated a passionate debate turning around the “fundamental” question whether we (women) accuse men to promote only or mostly other men – a debate which was understandably not very well received by part of the audience.
The problem of gender imbalance at higher hierarchical levels in science (as in too many other fields) is, to my view, not anymore due to explicit and deliberate discrimination – BUT it is also not entirely due to objectively explainable factors; invoked factors typically include motherhood or the care of parents. Explanations like a lack of interest for hard science or for powerful positions do, however, still appear in many related discussions.
I am convinced that there are unexplainable mechanisms at work, just as it is now commonly agreed that the gender pay gap partly results from processes that cannot easily be pinned-down (see the unexplainable gender pay gap in Switzerland here) and that it may arise even in companies that explicitly try to overcome gender pay gaps.
One might now ask whether it is useful to discuss gender balance during conference business meetings or in a blog like this one.
First of all, as a scientist, I simply would like to understand why things are how they are and discussing is of course a very good way forward. Second, I am convinced that part of the gender imbalance in my professional environment is caused by the lack of role models.
Accordingly, I try hard to show my female students how a female career with family (and sports!) could look like. But I also continue to raise the topic in professional discussions because, contrary to what many young male and female colleagues might think, we are not there yet.
The gender gap is not exclusively due to explainable factors that we might want to accept. In other words, there is still too much epistemic uncertainty involved here to be confident that the situation is evolving towards a desirable state.
Holmes et al. (2008), in their very interesting article on gender imbalance in US geosciences, offer an enlightening definition of such a desirable state in terms of gender parity: “a department will have achieved gender parity when every student in it can look at the faculty and see at least one person whose life they wish to emulate.” (Holmes et al., 2008, p. 81).
The big open question is here of course what we can do about this in our everyday work.
A possible response is the one heard by several participants at the hydrology business meeting: become more pro-active when it comes to look for female candidates to promote into positions at all levels. Not with the idea of a quota in mind but with the idea that, given existing structural and historical barriers (Holmes et al., 2008), the recruitment of female candidates requires perhaps a bit of an extra effort.
Holmes, M. A., O’Connell, S., Frey, C., and Ongley, L.: Gender imbalance in US geoscience academia, Nat. Geosci., 1, 79-82, 10.1038/ngeo113, 2008.