From left to right: Jiaqi, Jocelyne, Omar, Janice
Farewell drinks and lunch for Jocelyne and Omar, who end their time at the lab today and will pursue their research interests in Europe in the coming months. Thank you guys for all the good times!
We wish them all the best in their future endeavours!!
I had the privilege of being invited to speak at the College of Science inaugural Women in Science Symposium today. We had great presentations by both senior and junior women scientists and spoke candidly about the challenges women face in STEM fields and what all of us could do about to narrow the gender gap.
I spoke about Supporting Women in Earth and Environmental Sciences which highlighted some of my experiences growing up in Singapore, going overseas and being back to pursue a career in academia.
I was encouraged by a senior faculty member to publish my talk online. Here is the transcript for my talk. All opinions are mine and do not reflect the views of the school or university.
Inspiring Women in Science
A Woman in Engineering Science & Technology Symposium
2nd May 2018
Excellences, ladies and gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure to be here for the inaugural College of Science “Inspiring Women in Science” Symposium. Before I begin, I will, first and foremost, like to thank Kimberly Kline for orchestrating this event, and for inviting me to speak to you about supporting women in the earth and environmental sciences. Secondly, I will like to thank the College of Science for providing support to young women scientists in the form of travel grants. My heartfelt congratulations go to the six travel grant awardees from SPMS, SBS and the ASE. I hope that this is the start for more new initiatives as well as a stronger commitment by the College of Science to promote women in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM fields.
My name is Janice Lee and I am an Assistant Professor at the Asian School of the Environment. I have a background in the Life Sciences and Ecology from the National University of Singapore and completed my PhD in Environmental Systems Science at ETH Zurich. I am now involved in the interdisciplinary field of Land System Science which is the study of the processes and mechanisms of land use change, as well as the social and ecological outcomes of land use. An example of major land use change in our region is the expansion of oil palm agriculture over tropical rainforests.
To begin, I will like to start off with my own experiences of being a woman in science, and specifically, one of growing up in Singapore, going overseas, and being back to pursue a career in academia. All through my years of education in Singapore, I never felt like I was at a disadvantage to pursue my interests in the natural sciences. Equal opportunities were provided by my school teachers to develop science-based projects and to participate in science competitions. I think at least within the Singapore system; we are gender-blind about the academic potential of boys and girls in school. It’s not uncommon to see girls being top school achievers or being on the Dean’s List. However, things started to look different when I pursued post-graduate studies. I found that women in the lab environment tended to be shy and quiet when men talked in lab meetings. Women postdocs and PhD students took on more roles in stocking the pantry and keeping it clean. During lab meetings, men’s opinions were more frequently sought after, while women were talked over or simply overlooked. Occasionally, inappropriate comments were made about women and laughed off. And generally, there were just less women occupying positions higher up on the academic ladder. It was in my post-graduate studies that I realized that science has a gender gap.
It’s probably a good thing that I only knew of this gender gap later in my studies. But let’s have a look at some statistics in Singapore to understand how we got there. Up until university, the gender gap in science is not apparent as we do have a pretty high proportion of female science graduates in all our local universities (the figures are consistently above 50%). The gender gap at the university level is much larger in engineering where women make up a third of the cohort in most years. As science and engineering graduates enter the workforce, that’s where we see a high attrition of women who discontinue their careers in science or engineering. Statistics in Singapore show the proportion of women as research scientists and engineers hover around 28%, and this has increased marginally in the last five years.
Being back in Singapore to pursue an academic career has allowed me to understand why women may not be so keen to continue their careers as research scientists and engineers. Sometimes it’s simply the lack of jobs available. Most times, it’s the struggle of balancing the demands of home and the research environment. Occasionally, it’s the lack of a supportive work environment and unfair treatment of female employees. Since my talk is focused on Supporting WiS in the Earth and Environmental Sciences, I will touch on each of these three points, (1) the availability of jobs, (2) balancing family and research, and (3) building a supportive work environment, in the context of women pursuing science careers in the field of earth and environmental sciences.
Academic positions are scarce wherever you are in the world. So, young researchers everywhere are up against a tough job market. That said, to be able to secure the job, one must pass through the interview stage, and that’s where unconscious bias against women could potentially be introduced. A recent study showed that CVs with male names were favored over CVs with female names, even though the CVs were identical for the position of a lab manager. Males were also offered a bigger starting salary. This is troubling as the perceived availability of jobs for women in Science, could potentially be a societal bias at play. To bring this back to the earth and environmental sciences, some of these jobs may require the candidate to endure tough field conditions, which may increase the likelihood of stronger unconscious bias in the hiring process. How can we resolve this? One way of tackling this issue is to simply acknowledge the possibility of unconscious bias at play during any hiring process, from research assistants, to PhD students, post-docs and faculty members, and to check our decisions against this potential bias at every step of the hiring process. The earth and environmental sciences has a relatively good record of balancing the gender ratio as compared to other fields such as the biological, physical and mathematical sciences. At the Asian School of the Environment, a third of our faculty comprise of women, half of our research staff and close to half of our PhD students are women.
2. Balancing family and research
In the earth and environmental sciences, it is not unusual to have to be based overseas for long periods of time to collect data or conduct experiments in the field. This extended time away can place a strain on personal relationships and is highly challenging in the circumstance where the researcher, is also a care-giver, either for a child, or for a relative such as aging family members. Since women have a higher likelihood of taking on care-giving roles in the family, women scientists in the earth and environmental sciences may find themselves facing more of these challenging situations than their male co-workers. This is not to say that men do not face similar challenges, but that women have a higher likelihood of facing these challenges as compared to men. There is much that can be done on the part of women scientists to seek help and organize their travels and fieldwork around their care-giving responsibilities. Employers and grant funders on the other hand could strive to lean on the side of compassion and take into consideration any delays in fieldwork and data collection as a result of care-giving roles and responsibilities. For this to happen, individual actions are welcomed, but are merely reactive. More crucially, long-term, holistic change to the systems and culture within STEM fields is required. This has to come from within the school, college and university and it has to be led by both men and women at higher levels of management of the institution. This leads me to my third point about building a supportive work environment for WiS.
3. Building a supportive work environment
When I was a postdoc at Princeton University, I was part of the Ecology and Evolutionary Department and I joined in the middle of a review of gender equality within the department. The review was led by a team of faculty members, postdocs and graduate students, and it surveyed both men and women to understand what were the issues related to gender equality in the department, what aspects fostered gender equality and in what ways could gender equality be improved. After the review was published and disseminated across all members of the department, each lab group was encouraged to hold a discussion about the review during their lab meeting and to discuss constructively how gender equality could be improved within their own lab. The process of dialogue about these issues was highly encouraging. Male PhD students and postdocs within the group held an informal and candid discussion about gender equality with female PhD students and postdocs to understand our perspective and how, collectively, we can grow together as a lab. Our PI was also highly supportive of the initiative and set aside a lab meeting for this issue. One suggestion for improvement within our lab was to encourage men to be more mindful to seek the opinions of women in lab meetings and that dominant personalities be more mindful about letting others be heard. Another suggestion was about keeping the discussion on gender equality ongoing (for example a topic could be revisited every academic year), to improve lab members’ awareness of the issue and foster their efforts to help address it.
I bring up this experience because to me, it is an example of action aimed at systemic change to address gender equality issues within a department. It is also an example of how an institute-level initiative (through the review), sparked dialogue within the lab and provided a platform for all lab members to talk about issues surrounding gender equality in the workplace. What this also means is that building a supportive work environment for women pursuing earth and environmental sciences (and other sciences for that matter) is more than hosting specific events for women, which could potentially compartmentalize and isolate the issue. Instead, it is about challenging the status quo, engaging with all members of the STEM department, and creating awareness from both top-down and bottom-up initiatives. The process can sometimes get a little uncomfortable. All of us hold biases and it’s unpleasant to be made aware of our imperfections, but often these biases are unconscious and we need to be active and intentional to correct our hidden biases. This is crucial as it shapes the way we design our management policies in universities which impact peoples’ lives. It also influences the culture we create at the workspace and what is deemed socially acceptable in our research environments.
For example, if we truly want to build a family-friendly work environment and a culture of supporting women in science in their careers after having children, we should consider supporting male scientists who also have children and wish to apply for paternity leave. Singapore recently introduced 2 weeks of paid paternity leave funded by the Singaporean Government in January 2017. However, based on what I have read from the Ministry of Manpower, this is only for fathers with children who are Singaporean citizens. That means male scientists with non-Singaporean children do not receive paid paternity leave from the Singaporean Government when they have a child. In pursuing gender equality, we do need to be aware of these biases within our management policies and ask if such policies contribute towards creating a culture of shared responsibility for child rearing among men and women in their scientific careers.
In another example that is more specific to the earth and environmental sciences, we need to be mindful of inappropriate comments and behavior of men towards women in field sites which could be located in remote areas. Men and women need to speak out against inappropriate comments and behavior towards women in field sites to ensure that the field environment is a safe working environment that is free from sexual harassment and abuse. Keeping silent when an inappropriate comment or behavior is expressed breeds contempt from the offender and shame in victims, making what is socially unacceptable in an office workspace seem acceptable at a different, remote location. As field scientists, we must be vigilant about this and construct a culture that supports women earth and environmental scientists who need to conduct data collection or field experiments for extended periods of time.
Since I began my post-graduate studies 10 years ago, there certainly has been very concrete changes about the gender gap in science. Universities are beginning new initiatives to tackle the issue, committees are formed to review gender issues in departments, and in general, it has become more of a topic for discussion over beer hours, lab meetings, and social media. There is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of how we view gender equality at the workplace and how we can push for more women to make it to top management positions in schools, colleges and universities. The points which I mentioned above, are quite frankly applicable to all other STEM fields and are not constrained to the earth and environmental sciences. As a college, we can certainly help each other out across the different schools and learn from each other’s management practices in reaching a gender balance across all levels (research staff, PhD students and faculty members). Hopefully in the next ten years, we will see more women speaking up during lab meetings and have their opinions sought after, both men and women postdocs and PhD students sharing responsibility to stock the pantry and keeping it clean, inappropriate comments being called out and corrected, and generally more women occupying positions higher up on the academic ladder. Let’s aim to make the gender gap narrower in the College of Science through collective efforts from our top management and from all our bottom-up efforts.