How can Generation Y encourage more women to become leaders in science?

By Laura Kreiling

Junior Economist/Policy Analyst, OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation

Shortly after the outbreak of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic when France went into the first lockdown in 2020, a friend and I held a virtual toast to honour the 75th birthday of Pippi Longstocking, the free-spirited fictional character who believed that anything is possible. A childhood heroine for many of us born in the 1980s and 1990s, Pippi Longstocking was invented by Astrid Lindgren not long after the death of the pioneering scientist Marie Curie in 1934. Over the course of our conversation, I wondered what Marie Curie would have thought, more than a century after she won Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry, of the few female leaders in science today?

Indeed, the gender disparities in science remain both stark and troubling in OECD countries. Although around half of all women between the ages of 25 and 34 have completed higher education, women comprise barely a third of all researchers. As evidence of this gender gap in research continues to mount, policy makers and institutions face a multifaceted challenge that calls for solutions on several levels.

But policy makers aren’t the only ones with a role to play. In fact, as I argued in a recent OECD policy brief, people like myself – members of Generation Y – play as important a role in helping young girls and women to overcome external and internal barriers and become scientists. This is particularly true as we head towards a post-COVID-19 society in which I believe scientific leadership will be more important than ever.

Policy makers and institutions can help women overcome external barriers through employment and family-friendly policy measures. For example, many women have childcare responsibilities that are hard to reconcile with a career in research. In this case, the policy mix is crucial; certain tax policies may incentivise women to cut back their working hours in favour of part-time work, while flexible work arrangements and parental leave provisions may allow for more viable career paths.

Interactions with girls and young women are critical to overcoming barriers.

Policies around hiring and scientific careers can make a difference, as well. At the moment, policies on scientific career advancement incentivise researchers to produce more scientific work (e.g. publications and citations), though the skill requirements for researchers are rapidly evolving as universities place increased importance on broader research engagement activities, the downstream use of research findings and their commercialisation. Assessments should therefore account for a broader range of aspects, such as skills in teamwork, scientific communication and the ability to put scientific findings into practice (e.g. via patents or academic spin-offs).

While policies can help reduce external barriers for women to work in science, individuals can control and influence the internal barriers that lead many girls or female students to decide against careers in research. Some women, for instance, may have lower expectations of what they can achieve in a research career, or may be more willing to compromise career goals for their partner or children. Interactions with girls and young women are critical to overcoming these barriers, as they can help raise their awareness around self-inflicted roadblocks and support them to reach their full potential.

In my view, there are two important paths to accomplishing this. The first is to foster inter-generational exchange, because we are all shaped by those with whom we have grown up and whom we learned to trust. The second path is to provide young women with role models. Research in organisational behaviour and career theory shows that identifying with role models is an important part of decision-making and career development. The two recent female Nobel Prize laureates in Chemistry, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, are leaders in their field and will certainly be role models for some, but reaching broader audiences may require different approaches.

This is where members of my generation can play a role, because we have the unique ability to create direct relations with and provide guidance to the researchers of tomorrow — whether through mentoring programs or alumni associations of high schools or universities. From my own experience, I can say that talking about my career trajectory with students at my former high school has been extremely enriching. Engaging with current students is not only a great way to share lessons I’ve learned, tips on recruitment procedures and reflections about my own career decisions, but also to stay in contact with the generations that will follow us.

We can play a crucial role in empowering girls and young women to become scientists and leaders of the future.

My fellow members of Generation Y are in a unique position to support the next generation of researchers, but policy action is needed to improve the attractiveness of research careers. This is important because popular fields, like artificial intelligence (AI), already suffer from an ongoing “academic AI brain drain” and are short of mechanisms that allow for “brain circulation” from strong science-industry links. As senior students or early-career researchers today, most of my peers in Generation Y have completed their (higher) education, gained some work experience, and have started to build professional networks; yet those of us in early-career researcher positions can be confronted with the precarity of research careers. Short-term contracts and job insecurity in academia are the result of a shift towards project-based funding, and away from the institutional block funding that has allowed research institutes and higher education institutions greater capacity for long-term planning. Policy makers can address this by rebalancing support towards public research organisations, thereby making them more attractive employers for us.

A diverse research workforce is vital for innovation itself, but the need is more urgent than ever today, as the world continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic. This crisis has underscored the importance of providing sound scientific advice to policy makers, suggesting that science will play an even more important role in the post-pandemic world. As we work to become resilient to future crises, it is clear that we all have an important role to play in building back better for all generations.

As a member of Generation Y, I am convinced that we can act as a link between today’s decision makers and tomorrow’s university students and researchers – after all, it was not long ago that we were teenagers ourselves. Together with sound framework conditions from institutions and governments, we can play a crucial role in empowering girls and young women to become scientists and leaders of the future.

This blog post is a personal reflection of Laura Kreiling’s full piece on ‘Empowering female leaders in science: The role of Generation Y and Z’ which is among the 10 selected volunteer proposals from OECD staff of Generations Y and Z. All winning briefs are published in Shaping the Covid-19 recovery – ideas from OECD’s Generation Y and Z.

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