Why did we start Women in Climate?
Penny and Freya co-founded Women in Climate in March 2018 at the University of Exeter and May joined our organising team in 2019. Since Freya moved to the Met Office, the network has been established as a joint University of Exeter and Met Office initiative to support the retention of women in climate science and promote diversity. Women are underrepresented in scientific leadership positions, so as well as discussing topical issues, the network hosts skills-based sessions to help people achieve success in their careers. Everyone is welcome to our meetings, whether you identify as a woman, a man or as non-binary.
Despite many STEM undergraduate and postgraduate degrees having reasonable gender diversity, there is a rapid loss of women in STEM subjects post-PhD. In particular, there are significantly less senior women in climate science. Conversations with women in senior positions suggest that this phenomena is not simply ‘fixing itself’, as they have experienced seeing more and more of their women colleagues leaving the field or not progressing to senior positions over the years – the ‘leaky pipeline’ certainly exists. Some oft cited reasons for why this might be is that in academia, low security post-doc and lecturer positions frequently demand mobility and it is often harder for women to be able to take up these positions. Additionally, women are more likely to may take career breaks for their children and do a larger proportion of the caring for their children. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic women have generally had to take more time off work than men, and even short breaks can have a long term impact on career progression due to catching up and that women who have taken recent career breaks may be passed over for opportunities.
In addition, other factors that are likely to stymie women’s progress are that mentoring relationships can be hard to retain and informal mentoring is not as common for women, who are less likely to be taken to the pub by their senior colleagues for example. Generally, women will delay applying for promotion until the meet every criteria rather than just ‘giving it a go’, and this may also apply to grant funding applications. Women may in general find coping with failure more difficult and suffer more frequently from the imposter ‘phenomenon’. As well as instances of direct harassment that minority groups may face in the workplace, throwaway comments made by colleagues (‘microaggressions’) can take a large toll on people, and this has a detrimental effect on how safe, secure and respected people feel at work. There is evidence of unconscious bias in recruitment against female applicants (by both men and women), and name-blind recruitment is very difficult in science due to the need to declare publication lists. In addition, there is evidence that women leave male dominated professions (regardless of age) after a few years because of lack of senior role models. There exists a ‘glass cliff’ phenomenon, whereby women are more likely to be given senior positions in times of higher risk/crisis – this may translate into future insecurity in that position or make them less likely to be promoted if they are seen to have failed (whether due to their leadership or the external conditions).
Of course all of these potential barriers to seniority in science are generalisations and not all women will relate; equally, those with other gender identities or who identify as part of another minority group may relate to some of these points.
The name of our network, Women in Climate, reflects the gender imbalance that exists amongst academics and scientists in senior positions in climate science and related disciplines. The aim of the network is to support the retention of women in science and promote diversity in all areas. We hope to achieve this aim by hosting events and discussion groups to try and address some of the issues listed above and to provide a support network. Therefore our events are open to all genders and we hope the topics for discussion will benefit anyone who feels disadvantaged in academia. We encourage senior staff to attend as well as early career researchers.
The core event of the network are monthly meeting on the first Friday of the month. When in person, these events have free snacks and refreshments! We use these events to meet new people, to network and to discuss a diverse range of subjects. Some of these might be discipline specific, and some very general. We typically ask relevant climate scientists or subject specific experts (e.g., we asked psychologists to come talk to us about the ‘imposter’ phenomena) to help lead the discussion and offer experiences/opinions that can frame open discussion. We also run ‘Shut-up-and-write’ sessions to help our productivity and help us connect with others whilst we are predominantly still working from home.
The relaxed atmosphere, where we can talk freely with our colleagues, is a positive step in building a positive work place culture where we (a) don’t feel alone in struggles associated with the academia life, (b) can share experiences and ideas for coping with some of the things we find hardest about academic life and (c) promote diversity and the ideal of treating colleagues as individuals regardless of gender (or race, or sexual identity).
Organising such events on a smaller local scale (i.e., similar research interests, in our case the climate) with colleagues you know and where everyone can help shape the meetings, seems to be a recipe for success. We will continue to organise one-off events to provide specific skills training and bigger networking events, in addition to maintaining our monthly meetings.
We wrote a piece on the network for the Doctoral College promoting the network. Read the piece here.