Women's experiences in energy research: a reflection
I was recently interviewed by a fellow researcher seeking to understand women’s experiences in academia, and specifically in energy research. As a result of that experience, I have summarised my most prominent thoughts in this post.
The first thing to note is that I am a social scientist, but most of my research fits into the arena of ‘energy research’. While the former is clearly not bereaved of female representation, the latter still has some way to go. I routinely find myself in meetings where I am the only woman, something that doesn’t really bother me all that much. Most of the men I work with do not appear to treat me differently and don’t make me feel excluded. In fact, quite a lot of effort is made to ensure meetings, panels, decision-making fora etc. include good female representation. A particular case in point is the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) where I am now a core member. In its earlier stages, the Centre was very clearly dominated by (white) men, but it has made explicit efforts to be more inclusive since; both in terms of gender (& ethnicity) but also in terms of disciplinary representation. In fact, UKERC is currently funding the research into women’s experiences that I mentioned at the beginning of this post – see here and the link at the bottom of this post for more information.
I actually think being a young, female social scientist can work in my favour sometimes – asking me to be on a panel allows organisers to hit two (if not three) birds with one stone, given that it’s not only women that are underrepresented at ‘energy’ events, but social science has also recently begun to take on a more prominent role in this field. As such, demand is rising to ensure these diverse voices are heard. I feel this attempt at being more inclusive is not only for the sake of it (although to some extent funders are demanding these kinds of changes), but because there is increased recognition that inclusivity leads to better solutions/ideas.
Having said that, I have also witnessed a side to academia, which is more negative. There are still many elements that are far from supportive of women, especially given their unique position in our society - that is women still tend to do the heavy lifting when it comes to procreation and care giving.
I have been ‘lucky’ in the sense. I have been entirely flexible and my personal life has not (yet) restricted my availability and commitment to work. I am fairly certain that if I had a less understanding partner, or we would currently have children, I may not be in the position that I am in now. I can be flexible, travel extensively, and work extra hours to get that additional paper done. I am acutely aware that many of my female colleagues and friends are in very different positions.
In the UK, for example, it is common to have fixed-term contracts at the postdoctoral stage. The contracts are rarely longer than 2 years, and many are often much shorter. Permanent positions are hard to come by especially if you are restricted geographically. Many people therefore find themselves in uncertain employment even in their 30s, which is when most people start to think about having children; after all women are repeatedly told it’s almost too late if we leave it any longer than the age of 35! In addition, postdocs are essential for the smooth running of projects and when someone decides to go on parental leave (1) it is often difficult to replace them. Not only is it difficult to hire someone with specialist knowledge at short notice, but often no additional finance is available to do so. Furthermore, even if a substitute is hired, this may mean there is no job to come back to when the woman is ready to come back to work (because all the money has been spent).
This means many women who have children during their postdoctoral period have to worry about their future employment, but they may also be made to feel the project is at risk of failing due to their choices. Of course this is not always the case and there are plenty of examples where women have been superbly supported. However, the reason why a woman has a positive or negative experience should not simply be down to whether her line manager and HR contact happened to be understanding and supportive. We need much wider cultural change to address the multiplicity of issues that create these uncomfortable environments for women in academia.
To end on a positive note, I am encouraged to see so many people talking about issues that affect gender equality in the workplace and academia specifically. This includes a whole host of suggestions on how to create more supportive environments. For a good place to start, check out this excellent post by Prof. Catherine Mitchell.
(1) Parental leave was recently introduced in the UK, but this has not seen a surge in men sharing leave with their partners. It has been suggested that men fear coming across as less committed to their job if they ask for leave. This is further evidence that the wider culture needs to change before any real progress can be made in terms of gender equality.