The latest issue of Priscum, the newsletter of the Paleontological Society (pdf), has an interesting focus: where are the women in paleontology? They have a problem, in that only 23% of their membership are women, and I hate to say it, but the stereotype of a paleontologist is Roy Chapman Andrews — most people don’t imagine a woman when they hear the word paleontologist (unjustly, I know!)
On the other hand, 37% of the paleontology presentations at the GSA were by women. They’re there, but they aren’t getting far up the ladder of success. They’re not achieving high status positions within the society at the same rate as men, and then there’s this skewed distribution:
So women are over-represented in the student category, but under-represented in the professional category. The optimistic way to look at that is that there is an opportunity for change, and maybe that wave of current students will move on up and change the distribution ten years from now. More pessimistically, it suggests that there could be barriers that preferentially block the advancement of women in the field; if the distribution doesn’t change in the next decade, that says that there were more frustrated women who left the discipline than men.
So why would women experience greater barriers to advancement? It isn’t about evil men keeping the women down, and I wish we could clear away the resentment some men express when they hear that there are greater obstacles to women’s progress — too often I hear angry responses to accusations of academic sexism taken personally, as if it were a statement of personal criminality. It’s a product of the system, and men and women mostly contribute to it by neglect and an unwillingness to change the status quo.
What I most often see is statements of fact that I don’t disagree with, such as that women on average have lower publication rates than men, but the problem is that these advocates of blaming the inherent properties of women for their failure don’t think it through. Why do women have lower publication rates? Are there structural/cultural/professional properties that conflict and cause problems that men don’t see? And most importantly, if there are, what can we do to correct those institutional biases? Just saying that “women publish less” begs the question.
This article had a very helpful diagram illustrating the contributing factors, taken from a paper discussing a similar problems among evolutionary biologists.
Right there in the center is issue of lower publication rates in women, but it looks deeper at consequences and causes. Follow the arrows. I’ve seen similar charts before — it looks a heck of a lot like an extinction vortex, a self-perpetuating cycle of defeat.
Another article in the same newsletter describes the distribution of the leadership of the Paleontological Society. It shows steady improvement in the proportion of women in the society leadership, but still, most of the executive positions have been held by women less than 10% of the time. The more recently the position was created, the higher the proportion of women. I also noticed one outlier: 67% of the Education and Outreach Coordinators (a very new position) have been women. That’s another stereotype, too, that women are better suited to teaching. Look at the diagram above: going into teaching is also one of the factors that hurts research productivity, and as long as research is more highly valued than teaching, and teaching is considered ‘women’s work’, it’s going to skew representation of the sexes.
They have a proposal to correct the imbalance. Notice that it doesn’t involve simply declaring that they have equality of opportunity (which they don’t!) and doing nothing. Correcting these kinds of biases requires active intervention.
Societies are strengthened by incorporating diversity (of gender, of ethnicity, of abilities, of ideas, and of disciplines). As a society, we need to be aware of equity issues and take intentional steps to counteract imbalances. The recommendations below relate to increasing ALL types of diversity. So far, we have data on gender equity, but there are many other types of diversity we should work to improve. This set of recommendations applies to all of them.
Intentional nominations. Think about the excellent female colleagues you have. Now nominate at least one of them for a leadership position (we have several open this year!) or a society award. All Society positions are open nominations, so please share your ideas!
Mentoring. Establish professional relationships with young women in paleontology (students and early career professionals). Spend some extra time at poster sessions meeting some of our student members. Encourage women to submit abstracts for oral presentations. Established women, share your career stories and experiences.
New initiatives. PS Council is dedicated to increasing equity for all types of diversity in our membership. Please share any ideas you may have for initiatives with [the author] or other council members—now and in the future.