Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

This opinion piece draws attention to the disadvantage of the academic STEM system, especially for female academics.

The COVID 19 pandemic exposed the precarious positioning of two groups within the academic STEM system. In the first group are women in positions of academic leadership including professors, especially those with children or other care-giving responsibilities (NASEM, 2021). The second group consists of early career researchers (ECRs), independent of gender (Biswakarma et al., 2021). The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has identified ECRs at the postdoctoral level as belonging to the “research precariat” (OECD, 2021) and Nature has reported on mental health consequences for doctoral candidates arising from “poor mentorship, the inability to access counselling services and a lack of training for non-academic careers” (Forrester, 2021).

ECRs have direct experience of these shortcomings of the academic STEM system. Many ECRs are highly motivated to improve the system they will inherit but in which they are not yet entrenched. With the benefit of their experience, female academic leaders (FALs) have a better system-level understanding of institutional barriers and can more easily identify pressure points that can initiate sustainable, systemic change. FALs and ECRs would thus seem to be natural allies in addressing the shortcomings of the academic STEM system. Unfortunately, unconscious bias appears to hinder the development of strong alliances between these groups, thus impairing women’s potential both as leaders for change and as supervisors and mentors for ECRs.

How female academic leaders are affected by unconscious bias

Unconscious bias can affect members of underrepresented groups at any career stage. When FALs exercise authority and agency, they violate the stereotypical expectations for women, triggering hostility and criticism (Sieghart, 2022). For example, bias against female instructors results in student evaluations that are more negative for women than for men, even encompassing course materials that are used in common in sections led by male and female instructors (Mengel et al., 2018). The mismatch between stereotypical expectations and the image of a ‘strong leader’ may be one reason that doctoral candidates more frequently report conflicts with female than with male supervisors (Max Planck PhD Net, 2021). Women experience unfair attribution of credit as co-authors for their scientific contributions (Ni et al., 2021). Positions of ostensible leadership held by women tend to be down-graded as ‘service’ (Monroe et al., 2008). Hostility toward women in positions of power and authority, which is especially pronounced in politics (Gillard and Okonjo-Iweala, 2021), has been documented in corporate settings (Kramer and Harris, 2019) and also in academia (NASEM, 2018).

What could be changed – reform

Even without challenging the fundamental tenets of this system (particularly the narrow definition of excellence), many shortcomings that hinder the advancement of women and contribute to the precarity of ECRs could be addressed by appropriate attention to power structures, performance assessment, and systems for reporting misconduct. Informal networks and power structures, which are common in academia but often inaccessible to women (van Helden et al., 2021), can be offset by deliberate efforts to include women and share information, especially about resources and opportunities. Transparency and fair representation in positions of power are essential elements of good governance (APS, n.d.).

In assessing performance, varied contributions of research team members should be explicitly identified through the CRediT (Contributor Role Taxonomy) system (Allen et al., 2019) and incorporated into evaluation procedures. The central importance of effective mentoring as a core responsibility of faculty supervisors (NASEM, n.d.) must be emphasized and incentivized by academic institutions. The investments of time that female academic leaders make in mentoring and serving as role models (Black, n.d.) should be recognized and rewarded by academic institutions, as it is crucial for educating and encouraging the next generation of researchers.

Most importantly, academic institutions should establish independent, neutral procedures to assess alleged misconduct – including bullying, mobbing, discrimination and harassment – and take appropriate actions to promote ethical behavior and redress harm. Without such independent, neutral reporting channels, even problems as extreme as sexual harassment can be an ‘open secret’ within institutions as in the recent case of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (Woolston, 2022) and the historical cases presented in the film Picture a Scientist. Due to the hierarchical nature of the academic system, ECRs at the bottom of the pyramid are the most affected by power abuse and misconduct yet have the least possibility to speak up. This structure clearly harms individual scientists, and furthermore, it critically limits the diversity of academic leaders since disadvantaged ECRs are driven from their fields. Individuals who have experienced harassment or discrimination should not lack for institutional support (Fowler, 2017) and should certainly not experience retribution. A fair and robust process would minimize the fear of retribution for reporting misconduct and help to ensure that disclosures do not result in negative personal and career consequences. Although ECRs are particularly vulnerable to retribution, FALs have also experienced negative consequences for reporting misconduct by their peers.

How female academic leaders could help to ease the special burdens of the pandemic on ECRs

Even if the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic is over, it may take years for its effects on ECRs and on the entire academic system to wind down and be fully evaluated. Many labs were shuttered due to COVID (Chen, 2020) and travel for field work and collaborations was curtailed. Research conferences were postponed, canceled, or switched to online formats, which were also adopted for formal teaching, mentoring, and hiring. Mental health issues were exacerbated (Anon., 2020). As labs began to re-open, ECRs often had to compete for unusually limited lab space and resources as well as for time with mentors who were often juggling new methods of teaching and mentoring. For ECRs entering the job market, interviews often had to be conducted online rather than in person, border closures reduced the geographic accessibility of jobs, and many organizations stopped hiring altogether for an extended time period. The pandemic slowed the progress of many ECRs, exacerbating pressures on their professional and personal lives. During times of crisis, marginalized and less well-established groups tend to suffer the brunt of negative consequences. FALs, who have had to overcome the challenges of implicit bias or even outright discrimination, are well suited to advocate for ECRs affected by the pandemic. Some pandemic-era changes, such as ability to work from home at least part time, represent opportunities for improving work-life balance if properly supported and implemented. Such a progress requires systemic change, for which an alliance between FALs and ECRs would be a vital catalyst.

Moving beyond reform – transformation

The current incentive system in academic STEM strengthens academic hierarchies by over-emphasizing the role of paternalistic team leaders and under-emphasizing the roles of team members, thus perpetuating entrenched, and often unacknowledged, hierarchies, powerful status figures, and a feudal structure of labor. These historical patterns are being challenged through initiatives often driven by women. The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) seeks to develop a more holistic approach to funding, appointment, and promotion, assessing research not just by numbers but ‘on its own merits’ (DORA, 2013). FALs play a prominent role as members of the DORA Steering Committee. Although many institutions and funding agencies have endorsed DORA, these commitments have not been widely applied to decision making within institutions. The President of the Olin College of Engineering, Gilda Barabino, has recently issued a call to build a “just and fair scientific enterprise”, linking diversity and inclusion for students and faculty to the capacity to address society’s concerns (Barabino, 2022). Women dominate the leadership of the ADVANCEGeo partnership, which seeks to improve workplace climate conditions by addressing the problems of sexual harassment and other exclusionary behaviors (ADVANCEGeo Partnership, 2021). A group of 19 women initiated a working group “Critical discourse on excellence” at the University of Berne, which led to the establishment of the Swiss “better science” initiative. The 10 principles of this initiative – highlighting extra-academic work, taking time to think, putting quality before quantity, prioritizing thoughtfully, communicating carefully, enabling a healthy academic culture, evaluating comprehensively, appreciating the team, distributing tasks fairly, and being a role model – are intended to challenge the “current paradigm of quantifiable scientific and scholarly work” (better science, 2022). Transitioning to a fairer and more diverse value system would lead to a healthier and more attractive environment with better supervision, transparent career paths and the opportunity for attentive research, in which especially ECRs but also all other researchers could.

It won’t be easy

Transforming, or even reforming, the academic STEM system will not be an easy task. This will require “open, continuous communication and transparent decision-making” supported by “leadership that is willing to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty as issues get tested, debated or even rejected” (Katehi, 2022). Such changes will undoubtedly be discounted or opposed by beneficiaries of the current system, including some individual women who are strongly invested in the status quo and unsupportive of other women (Sieghart, 2022). FALs, as a group, have experiences of gender-based discrimination and harassment in academia (NASEM, 2018) as well as deep insight into the academic STEM system that has long enabled harmful practices. ECRs are increasingly gaining a voice through the Global Young Academy and its national affiliates (GYA, n.d.), as well as in various advisory boards (Powell, 2021), advocacy organizations such as Speak-Up! in Academia (Hierholzer, 2021) and the Academic Parity Movement (APM, n.d.), and local PhD and postdoc networks. ECRs may lack formal status in many academic STEM institutions, but they have the power of numbers and diversity. Most importantly, they represent the future of the scientific enterprise.

It will be worthwhile

By joining forces, members of the STEM community can increase the visibility and effectiveness of efforts to make the STEM academic system more inclusive, supportive, and sustainable. FALs and ECRs are poised to take their natural alliance to a new level. Bringing together experience and youthful energy, this alliance could be a powerful force for change. We call for an active and open exchange among FALs and ECRs as a first step in building local and global initiatives for change.