International Women’s Day’s theme for 2022 was “Break the Bias”. Last week Sima Bahous, the Executive Director of UN Women, shared the imperative to better leverage the full potential for women and girls in science. A special Nature conference explored these themes, bringing together outstanding, brave and inspiring women and allies, and over 1600 participants to explore how research can be used to affect change and move the world further on the road to gender equity.
As well as discussing the grim challenges, the conference was focused on identifying opportunities for women from various career stages in research, academia, policy-making, finance and industry. Women from around the globe – from Africa to Asia, from the Middle East and the Americas to Europe -- presented their exemplary work and singular efforts in pushing for gender equality and empowerment of women and girls (United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 5 or SDG5).
Sharing lessons from their own professional and personal journeys, participants identified the need for women to embrace all opportunities that come their way, to share generously, be collegial, to network and find mentors, and to stand up to institutional sexism, gender-based violence and lop-sided policies by joining voices with like-minded women or groups. Alongside, it was heartening to see allies pledge support in creation of frameworks across academia and industry to address long-held prejudices against women, such as unequal pay or poor representation in decision making roles.
“Leave no one behind” is the underlying principle of the SDGs. “But…our ambition surely must be not just that women are not left behind but that they lead the transformation,” Nature Editor in Chief and lead co-organiser of the conference Magdalena Skipper summed up the overwhelming sentiment of the conference. Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, President of the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan called on leaders to help get ‘all hands on the deck’ if the world wants to achieve a sustainable and fair future.
The speakers at the conference outlined why diversity is important for science and why breaking the ‘stability’ means, first and foremost, providing women a just and equal place at the table. Participants heard why engaging with the best, irrespective of gender, brings dynamism to science and makes perfect business sense, and how artificial intelligence and the digital communication boom have become the great levellers that women are increasingly using to their advantage, especially after the pandemic. “We each have a way in normalising what should be normal, i. e. gender equity and equal opportunity,” said Princess Sumaya.
Speakers observed that women’s lives are more affected by global crises such as wars, climate change or pandemics. The disadvantages compound further for women with disabilities or neurodivergence, for women of colour or elder women. Women spoke about their unusual, and often lonely, journeys in ‘hard’ disciplines such as mathematics (represented by Motoko Kotani of Tohoku University in Japan), physics or urban transport, traditionally considered the stronghold of men.
Women from the global south talked of deep-seated cultural issues while those in resource-poor countries shared stories of basic existential questions that come in the way of their education or economic empowerment. SDGs are really phenomenal, said Segenet Kelemu from the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology in Nairobi. “The problem is that many poor and marginalised people do not have 30-40 years to spare. The challenge is also that they (the SDGs) are not binding.” Kelemu made a moving point about the heightened intersectional issues that poor, illiterate and racially disparate women face.
As a starting point to understanding the depths of such intersectionality, Ji Mi Choi of Arizona State University highlighted the need for disaggregating gender data at all levels to define baseline figures for each socio-economic parameter that unrepresented women personify.
In the plenary sessions, panel discussions, fireside chats and the bespoke mentoring sessions, women emphasised the acute importance of inclusive systems and solutions, be it in research, food production, land ownership, urban infrastructure and mobility, education, academia or governance. “If we do not integrate the role of women in all the SDGs, we will probably not achieve the overall results,” said Fatima Arroyo Arroyo from the World Bank.
Gender inequity in scholarly publishing also came under the spotlight, when Charlotte Payne, senior editor at Nature Human Behaviour, observed that the structures of this industry were designed originally by white men in Europe. However, new-age publishing has great opportunities in open science, participatory research and highlighting evidence-based real life examples, to overturn those traditional models and make them more inclusive.
On the common question of the burden of caregiving falling mostly on women, affecting their careers and potential to contribute, Rupamanjari Ghosh of the Shiv Nadar University pointed out that tweaks must be made in institutional culture. “Maternity leave policy should not be gendered as it harms women by raising the cost of hiring them. It should be changed to family leave, which can be shared by the parents.” That sentiment was echoed by Neta Erez of Tel Aviv University who gave an example of how women were enabled to attend conferences in Israel with extra compensation to get childcare help while they are away.
Mentoring and reverse mentoring were spotlighted as effective tools to recognise, retain and nurture talented women. Breakout sessions saw lively discussions on building a support network, the key qualities of a good mentor and mentee, the value of women mentoring men and men championing the cause of women, breaking the privilege silo and translating mentorship into championship. A unique aspect of the conference was the mentoring match-making that will hopefully facilitate long-term mutual learning for participants who signed up to be mentors or mentees.
This was Nature’s first diversity conference put together by Nature, Nature Africa, Nature Middle East, Nature India, Scientific American, the Springer Nature Women employee network and the Springer Nature SDG 5 working group. The resounding verdict in the sessions, and the commitment of the organising committee led by Marios Karouzos, Publishing Manager of Nature Portfolio, was that this should only be the first of many.