Women in Research Ireland creates a platform for unheard voices

The organization explores institutional sexism and discrimination in academia

Why are women’s careers in science impacted by the “leaky pipeline”? Why do women comprise fewer than 1 in 5 professional astronomers? Why does academic language often favour a universal “he”?

Women in Research Ireland (WIRI) is a volunteer-run organization that aims to provide a platform for underrepresented groups in research fields. The Dublin based group was founded in 2017 initially by Dr. Sadhbh Byrne. At their second event, Dr. Susan Fetics and Ms. Martha Gulman approached Dr. Byrne and joined WIRI’s committee to help organize events and spread awareness. According to Dr. Fetics, the organization was set up because “at the time, there was a lack of space for women and other underrepresented groups to meet regularly to discuss issues hindering their careers while exploring solutions to any obstacles”.

WIRI hosts a wide range of events to promote their message and give platforms to underrepresented groups. “Diversity is the key to our events. We hold monthly events, consisting of lectures, panel discussions, workshops and information sessions.” Dr. Fetics adds: “In November 2019, we held our first open mic night. All events end with a Q&A portion which welcomes all attendees to participate in the discussion. With our Twitter and Instagram pages, we also support our mission via our online community.”

Recently, WIRI hosted a webinar wherein Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell gave a talk entitled “Women in Astronomy”. The talk only really touched on the field of astronomy, but was more about women’s current place in various research fields and the biases and mistreatment they regularly endure. Professor Bell Burnell spoke of growing up in Lurgan, Co. Armagh and how she and her parents pushed for her to stay in the academic stream, rather than leave it and learn how to cook and clean as most young girls did at the time. Yet even sticking to pursue her academic interests did not save her from sexist stereotypes. In boarding school, the boys and girls were split up. Girls were sent to cookery class whilst boys were sent to the science labs. After some grievances from her parents, there were three girls enrolled into the science class. Professor Bell Burnell loved physics and came top of her class. Yet instead of recognizing her achievements, the teacher simply lambasted the boys for “letting a girl beat them”.

Professor Bell Burnell and many other women have and continue to experience sexism and unequal treatment in their research fields today. Currently, 17% of astronomers in the world are female. This data of course is taking registered, professional astronomers into account and not amateur astronomers so the real number may be slightly different. However, it still remains that women are underrepresented in this field immensely, as they are in many other fields especially in positions higher up the career ladder. Change is coming though. Change is occurring slowly but surely due to incentives such as giving research grants to women-lead research groups and awards for equality such as the Athena Swan award. That incentives are even needed to cause change in the unequal treatment of men and women is disappointing, yet they are a promising beginning to what may eventually become institutional change.

Some people hold biases against others that they are aware of and may even double down on if they believe in it strongly enough. Most of us, however, may not have conscious bias but probably still hold unconscious biases against certain people. It is important to seek out these biases from the world around us so that we can stamp them out before they enact any more harm. Women regularly experience both conscious and unconscious bias against them. As Professor Bell Burnell points out: why on application forms, when filling in gender, does the M always seem to come before the F? It is not in alphabetical order, it is simply that many of these forms are made by men and to them, they may unconsciously believe that men come first.

Another example from Professor Bell Burnell is that many postgraduate programme listings will contain phrases such as “he who is successful in his application” and “successful candidates will receive an email, and he will then be interviewed”. The use of male pronouns instead of they is a lot more common in job descriptions than you would think. To a man, this kind of language goes undetected as the masculine pronouns click in their head as they read. For a woman, I would imagine that this type of language is nothing short of insulting, derogatory, and disheartening. There are countless examples of this kind of linguistic and symbolic sexism around the world. Female stereotypes are reinforced in advertising all across the globe, and still to this day there are people who believe that certain jobs are better suited for men than women and vice versa. These kinds of biases that exist within research fields must be eliminated. The only way of eliminating them for good is to keep highlighting them any time you see it. To all of my male peers and colleagues currently reading this, please do not be silent when you see these kinds of biases; cause uproar instead. 

the fact that an incentive is even necessary to cause these changes is slightly disheartening.”

In recent years, there has been considerable discussion on how to initiate a change to the typical sexism and biases that inherently exist within institutions. In fact, Professor Bell Burnell has helped formulate one solution to some of these issues. Athena Swan is an award created by Bell Burnell and her colleagues that would be awarded to universities that display advancement of gender equality within their institution. The award is aimed at causing institutional change. It is now a major award for universities to hold in the UK and is causing rapid change in the structures of official university committees and departments. In some cases, universities would only be granted funding if they were honoured with the Athena Swan award.

In 2019, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) deemed the Athena Swan accreditation a requirement for all higher education institutions to be deemed eligible for funding. These kinds of incentives, such as awards for equality, are causing rapid change. Yet the fact that an incentive is even necessary to cause these changes is slightly disheartening. It is difficult to determine the true motives of universities who improve their gender equality to win such awards. On the other hand, do their true motives really matter if the results are overwhelmingly positive and lead to better opportunities for oppressed groups of people in academia? Dr. Fetics states: “We should be questioning their motives and hold our institutes accountable for fair and authentic working environments.” The institutional changes that many universities are making to improve gender equality need to be everlasting. Not only does the institutional structure need to be corrected, but people’s attitude and thinking behind these moves needs to be altered too. 

There are a lot of issues that women and underrepresented groups face in the academic world, but highlighting the specific issues is important in moving towards solutions to these problems. Dr. Fetics outlines some of the important issues that can be seen prominently: “Everyone talks about ‘the leaky pipeline’: that is, when more and more women leave research as the positions become more prominent. The academic research environment can be unsuitable for women who wish to have a family life, especially if that plan includes children.”

“It can be difficult to have a healthy work/life balance given the demands and pressures of a ‘successful’ research career, which means frequent publications, continual funding awards and steady travel to high profile conferences within one’s specialty,” Dr. Fectics explains. “This problem is happening both in Ireland and globally. And when someone does not succeed on the traditional academic career path, it can feel like a source of shame and promote negative judgement by previous colleagues who succeeded in their academic careers. However, research is not a one-size-fits-all journey. What works well for some does not work at all for others.”

The issues that women and underrepresented groups face in Ireland are seen globally too. “The gender pay gap, sexual harassment, bullying, imposter syndrome and racism are just a few of the countless obstacles that discourage women from an ambitious, well-intended career.” These issues highlight the importance of WIRI and other organizations that provide a platform for unheard voices within the Irish research community.

not only use your voice to share knowledge to promote change, but listen intently to those who face unpleasant challenges.”

Promoting awareness of these issues is another path towards solving them. There are plenty of ways to raise awareness of specific issues faced by all underrepresented groups in our academic communities. Dr Fetics believes that compassion is “essential for students to help with the struggles of others”. She continues: “When possible, not only use your voice to share knowledge to promote change, but listen intently to those who face unpleasant challenges. Leave judgement behind. We all want to do good work and feel a sense of satisfaction from a job well done that will contribute positively to society.”

“The petition of Trinity students to establish a Black Studies module is an excellent example of students unifying their voice for constructive and effective change,” she says. “Their awareness to unlearn racism and unconscious biases will help those facing discrimination. Students need to keep this proactive attitude alive.” 

Raising awareness is central to WIRI’s aims and they do this by giving a platform to those who otherwise would go unheard. With the Covid-19 pandemic, their events have largely shifted online, two of which were originally due to take place in Trinity – one on Women in Astronomy, and one on Ireland’s first Black Studies module. Dr. Fetics states that the webinars “perfectly represent how WIRI uses its platform to promote subject matters critical for public discourse”.

“The online events are recorded and will be available on WIRI’s YouTube channel for those who did not attend the live event. We find we are reaching a broader audience thanks to online events. By carving out this space in Dublin, we strive to lay the groundwork which generates substantial differences far from such commonplace negative situations.”

WIRI interacts with its community online through their social media platforms. On July 20, they will be hosting an online webinar entitled “Racism in Science and Society” which anyone can attend for free by registering online. Angela Saini, author of “Superior: The Return of Race Science”, is due to host the talk and a Q&A will be hosted after her presentation.

Cian Lynch

Cian Lynch is the current SciTech Editor of Trinity News.