STEM Women: How Men Can Help, with Professor Jonathan Eisen

STEM Women: How Men Can Help, with Professor Jonathan Eisen

Last week, STEM Women launched our YouTube Channel. We’ll be hosting a fortnightly Hangout on Air series that is live streamed every second Sunday. Our show will cover four major themes:

  • In the Spotlight: Highlights women’s careers in STEM;
  • STEM Parents: Advice on how to encourage young girls interested in studying STEM subjects;
  • Finding Solutions: Organisations & programs that actively target recruitment, retention & promotion of women; and
  • How Men Can Help: Practical ways that men can support gender inclusion from junior to senior levels.

Our first guest was Professor Jonathan Eisen who chatted about how male academics can help better recruit, retain, and include their women colleagues. Jonathan is a molecular biologist at University of California (UC) Davis. He’s also the Academic Editor-in-Chief for PLOS Biology. On his blog and social media, as well as through his professional activities, Jonathan is a passionate advocate of gender equality in STEM. Below is a summary of our discussion, centred on gender diversity and participation within academic conferences.

Family Connections

Professor Jonathan Eisen holds an "I Support Women in Science" badge given to him by his mother, a Chemistry professor
Professor Jonathan Eisen holds an “I Support Women in Science” badge given to him by his mother, a Chemistry professor

Jonathan comes from a family of scientists: his Mum is a chemistry professor; his Dad is a molecular biology researcher; his Grandfather was a physicist; and other aunts and uncles are doctors and researchers. Jonathan says he’s been “indirectly interested” in women in STEM issues for many years, as his Mum had been involved in AWIS (Association for Women in Science).

The issue of gender inequality in the sciences became more explicit for Jonathan once he started working in a genome research lab, where he noticed that there were more men than women. Yet he became more vocal about the lack of women’s representation at conferences around five years ago, when the issue became even more prominent for him.

Shaking Up All-Male Conferences

Female Conference Speaker Bingo. Via Mel Melendrez (Click to enlarge)
Female Conference Speaker Bingo. Via Mel Melendrez (Click to enlarge)

Jonathan has long spoken out about the gender ratio at science conferences. In 2012, he noted one biology conference had a 25:1 male to woman speaker ratio. We asked Jonathan to speak about this image (left) titled Conference Bingo. It satires the routine excuses given for women’s under-representation at science conferences. Excuses include:

Women just aren’t interested in this field. ♦ There aren’t enough qualified female speakers. ♦ Women are shy. ♦ No one has complained about this before.

Given this is a regular hot topic, Jonathan spoke about why these excuses hinder progress in science.

You hear many excuses for the lack of women’s representation. Some of these excuses are reasonable, about why it’s hard to get diverse speakers at conferences, but this doesn’t mean that this should end efforts to bring in more women.

Professor Jo Handelsman, PhD Molecular Biology & STEM woman role model. (Image via
Professor Jo Handelsman, PhD Molecular Biology & STEM woman role model. (Image via

Jonathan brings up one simple but obvious example, when planning a conference or some other meeting, organisers should think about childcare. A few years a go, Jonathan went for a break during an UCLA conference. Once outside, he noticed a woman playing with a one year old child. Curious, Jonathan asked her if she was taking a break from listening to conference talks. She said she was there as a hired nanny for a graduate student who was speaking at the conference. It turns out that the City of Wisconsin had a program to pay for childcare for graduate students who wanted to participate in academic conferences. It’s the simple logistics of how to attract women speakers that Jonathan is now focusing on. Jonathan uses the advocacy work of molecular biologist, Professor Jo Handelsman, as a model. Handelsman studies gender and diversity biases in science. She was awarded the David C. White Research and Mentoring Award in 2011 in recognition for her “unprecedented” work as a role model and mentor. Jonathan says of Handelsma’s work:

She is one of my inspirations and role models… I was blown away by her vision. That it’s not sufficient to just invite people to a meeting. You have to think about why they may not want to be there, or why they may not be able to come.

Jonathan says there are 10 to 15 “low hanging fruit issues” that would make it easier for women to participate in conferences, both as speakers or attendees.

People can always say: “We don’t have the money.” You can always make this excuse. But if I’m organising a conference, I’d want the conference to be interesting and to have diverse perspectives.

"If you're going to spend money on an open bar instead of childcare for graduate students, you should rethink what you're doing." - Jonathan Eisen
“If you’re going to spend money on an open bar instead of childcare for graduate students, you should rethink what you’re doing.” – Jonathan Eisen

Advancing the Conversation

We asked Jonathan about whether he worries about how talking about STEM inequality may turn women off science. Jonathan sees that when something is not going well or there’s biases, some people may feel worse by talking about the problem. Yet he also notes that we can’t solve problems without talking about them.

It’s pretty clear from scientific studies of tenure, promotional activities, hiring, peer review, papers and grants, there’s been documented science that shows bias. If you take a CV and put a male’s name on the CV or a female’s name on the CV, they are responded to differently.

Jonathan notes that inequality is’ “pretty pervasive” even if it’s not conscious. For this reason, Jonathan is involved with the NSF UC Davis Advance Program to improve hiring, promotion and retention of women and under-represented minorities in STEM. Changing the UCDavis practices on hiring and tenure processes, as well as policies on leave and time off, tackles biases as well as improving the university’s broader outcomes. He says:

We’re not getting the best scientists in the world in our institutions because we lose them. Or we don’t hire them.

If we want science to be the best, and cutting edge - doing new and interesting things - then why have we potentially abandoned half the population? - Jonathan Eisen
If we want science to be the best, and cutting edge – doing new and interesting things – then why have we potentially abandoned half the population? – Jonathan Eisen

We spoke about how for some people, “feminism” can be a dirty word, and speaking out on inequality can come with heavy penalties from our colleagues and our institutions. Jonathan says this is the reason why people in power need to take up the fight against inequality:

There’s no doubt that people can get branded if they’re vocal in speaking out about whatever issues relate to the group that they belong to. One thing we need is for men to come out on this. It’s important for all of science.

Jonathan notes that senior and Executive members need to lead by example. The Vice Chancellor of the University is the Principal Investigator on the UC Davis Advance Grant, . Jonathan explains:

She is deeply committed to top-down change so that postdocs and junior faculty and new people applying for jobs don’t have to make that part of their fight. It is in the interest of our institution to do this well so that we will get better scientists. People will be happier staying here and they will be more productive.

It does’t hurt to have voices from all over [speaking out on inequality], but it’s critically important that the tenured faculty- the Deans, the administrators, the government agencies, the journals, and the people with power who aren’t taking risks; that they do something about it.

Simple Strategies for Change

Jonathan argues there several other basic issues that universities might address in order to actively promote more women at different levels.

Diversity training for hiring committees:

Jonathan notes that during recruitment interviews for faculty positions, women are still asked when they’re planning to get pregnant. We need to teach the people who make recruitment decisions about why these sorts of questions, which are never asked of men, create an unwelcoming environment for women. Recruitment actions will improve through active awareness campaigns and through targeted training.

Improve the impact factor bias:

The academic system rewards publishing in prestige journals with a high impact factor (this is the academic ranking system for publications). Jonathan points out that women and under-represented minorities conduct research in areas that are more applied and more focused on community issues. These areas don’t attract the same level of academic prestige. Specifically, this work is not prominently featured in high impact journals. This does not mean that this science is any less worthy, but the topics don’t necessarily fit the interests of top ranked academic publications. This is a bias within the academic system that favours men’s interests, without supporting women’s research expertise. This needs to change.

Mentorship for graduate students & postdocs:

Jonathan notes that there’s been more effort to improve gender issues at the K-12 level (primary and secondary schooling). Yet there’s not enough focus on how to mentor graduate students or postdocs. The current Advance program is focused on mentoring junior faculty, but there is less training for how to help early career researchers. It would be ideal to have more direct training and discussion of women in STEM issues starting at the undergraduate levels. As one goes further up the career trail, women “leak out” of the academic pipeline. We should openly discuss this with students. While there’s reasons to be pessimistic about the current situation, there more more reasons for optimism. Transparency will better prepare students, rather than leaving them to figure out the pitfalls alone.

This is true at all level in the natural sciences. People expect everything to be learned by osmosis. People don’t talk publicly about the tenure challenges. A lot of these issues are independent but somewhat related to women and minorities. We’re just not very open or talkative about issues outside of research.

Jonathan argues that institutions don’t want to have implicit biases, but they haven’t thought enough about how their policies and the general academic practices exclude women and other minorities. Institutions and their senior members therefore need training on practical issues that can help them address areas that will support diversity.

We ended by discussing that there are anonymous opportunities for people who want to discuss gender issues in STEM. Some people may not feel comfortable sharing their experiences in the open. For this reason, STEM Women offers an avenue for anonymous submissions.

How men can help STEM women: Hiring, rewarding & mentorship
How men can help STEM women: Hiring, rewarding & mentorship

Next Time

Our next live Hangout on Air features Dr Yonatan Zunger. Yonatan has a PhD in Physics with a strong engineering background. He works as the Chief Architect at Google+. We speak with Yonatan this weekend, on Sunday 12:30 PM USA Pacific/ 8: 30 PM GMT. We’ll be continuing our conversation on How Men Can Help. Yonatan will discuss how male leaders can mentor junior women in STEM professions, specifically in technology and engineering.

STEM Women: How Men can Help with Dr Yonatan Zunger
STEM Women: How Men can Help with Dr Yonatan Zunger

6 thoughts on “STEM Women: How Men Can Help, with Professor Jonathan Eisen

    1. Thanks for your comment, Tara. We agree that Jonathan is an awesome ally and all-round excellent public scientist!


  1. I’m assuming that ‘The City of Wisconsin” is the University of Wisconsin Madison? This assumption makes me happy.


  2. In general botany gets overlooked in discussions of science and biology, but botany has a long tradition of women botanists and it still has the largest proportion of women of all the fields of science.


    1. Very interesting point about Botany The Phytophactor! Do you have a reference for this statistic? Our readers would doubtless love to learn more.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s