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Conversations on being a woman in Geoscience

Conversations on being a woman in Geoscience

While at this year’s General Assembly in Vienna, Keri McNamara, one of the EGU’s press assistants, spoke to a number of female geoscientists (at different career stages), to get their perspective on what being a female in geosciences is like.

At this year’s EGU General Assembly I decided to construct a blog out of conversations I had with several women in geoscience, to learn about their research and experiences. While I’ve been lucky enough to be supported by many amazing female scientists, I know that this isn’t always the case for others who have felt undervalued or overlooked.

This year at the EGU’s General Assembly year there have been great sessions on addressing gender inequality in the geosciences. Many celebrated the gains made in a generation in terms of female participation in science. Others painted a concerning picture of male dominance especially at the higher levels.

In the EGU for instance, all of the medal awards are named after male geoscientists and only 22% of them were awarded to women in 2017. There is a gender imbalance at all levels in the EGU membership statistics but the early career scientists have the most female input with an encouraging 35% of the share.

In the charming age of ‘grab ‘em by the pussy’ it is more important than ever to ensure that women from all backgrounds feel they can be amazing scientists. It’s about fighting the male smirk when you say you’re learning python, refusing to feel embarrassed squatting behind a bush while on a field trip or demanding not to be pressured to turn down that post-doc because you want to have a kid.

Below you’ll find the interviews with several women in geosciences, from PhD students to CEOs. I hope they are a source of information and inspiration for other female geoscientists. As Dr Véronique Garçon of  Future Earth (an international research platform for the advancement of Global Sustainability Science) said in her EGU talk on promoting equality:

Never give up!


Chris McEntee:  CEO and Executive director of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

AGU is a 60,000-person earth and space science membership organisation with 40% of its members from 136 countries outside the United States. She has been the first woman CEO of three different membership organisations including AGU.

If you want to take on a leadership position get training to be an effective leader, says Chris McEntee. (Credit: EGU/Kerri McNamara).

What are your experiences of being a woman in a leadership position?

I think things have improved over time. It’s much better in the US than other countries.  At the same time I still think there’s a lot of problems. AGU has delved into sexual harassment, bias and discrimination and the stories are pretty alarming. There’s some unique things in geosciences because of field and ship experiences that can make women more vulnerable in certain situations.

What are you doing to address this?

In the past couple of years AGU has been trying to increase awareness through town halls and our sessions at our general meeting. Last year we received some funding from the National Science Foundation to bring together leaders in science societies and expert individuals on the treatment of women. Out of that has come a new AGU initiative on ethics and harassment. It will have tools, resources, bystander training, and workshops.

We want to continue the research too. The data is pretty compelling – a very substantial number of women have experienced sexual harassment in some way. We’ve also learned that meeting the legal standard for harassment and discrimination is difficult- it’s a very high bar. So there is a lot that occurs that might not meet the legal definition. We really have to stop it at the beginning by changing this culture.

We also need to provide a space so that if a woman is feeling something is inappropriate, but it’s not too serious, they have somewhere they can talk about it. Last year at the AGU Fall Meeting we had a ‘safe AGU’ campaign where staff and volunteers had buttons and said ‘if you feel unsafe, come to one of us and we can help you’. We are updating our code of ethics for our members to include harassment and discrimination as behaviors that are inappropriate.

What would you say to young women in science who hope to take leadership positions?

Get training to be effective leaders. It can be hard to find the time to add this type of training as the work of science is so demanding. Also find peer support groups and mentors who share your experience and can provide advice, counsel and support.

There are some great options available such as the Association for Women Geoscientists and the Earth Science Women’s Network. You are not alone and there are people who want to help. If you feel something’s not right, don’t think it’s you. Find someone that can help you think it through- there are a lot of men who are also supportive!


Dr Claudia Alves de Jesus-Rydin: Research Programme Officer at the European Research Council (ERC).

Claudia is also the coordinator of the gender activity group in the scientific department at ERC and an active member of the working group on gender balance in the scientific council of the ERC.

Claudia Alves de Jesus-Rydin feels women can find self-promotion harder. (Credit: EGU/Keri McNamara)

What are your experiences of being a woman in Geoscience?

I have to refer to the data that I observe at the ERC. We see that there is a change from the starting grant through to the advanced grant. What is really amazing is that systemically, in the Earth Systems Sciences, female applicants have higher success rates than male applicants at the starting grant and consolidated grant level: The female applicants are pretty competitive. The biggest issue I observe is the submission rate.

Of course there is the risk that once you increase the submission rate, maybe there will be a drop of the success rate.  The community is filtering themselves before they submit, perhaps they only submit if they are very strong? At the moment the key thing is encouraging more women to apply.

Why aren’t more women applying?

Often the problem is that women find the prospect of rejection harder.

There is this joke: ‘there is this guy in a bar and he walks up to a woman and he tries to buy her a drink. Eventually she gets really fed up and she says “Look, you have a one in a million chance with me” and the man replies “Yes! I knew I had a chance!”. If a woman got a reply like that they would just grab their things and move but a guy thinks ‘yes I have a chance’.

Also, self-promotion can be harder for women; the profile of car salesman is a very male one. I’ve heard woman say ‘ I don’t want to write a proposal saying how good I am.’ We really need women to push harder.

What about early career scientists?

I think early career scientists are doing well, but later on in their careers there is always the issue of the family. I think that’s when most support is needed; from colleagues, institutions, supervisors and partners at home.

I think role models are a great way to address this; to show it is possible. You don’t have to sacrifice your personal life, you can still have a good balance being a good Mom, a good woman and a good scientist; a scientist that has achieved really great things.


Credit: EGU/Keri McNamara

Helena Łoś: PhD student at Warsaw University, Poland.

Can you tell us about your research?

My background is Geodesy and I specialise in photogrammetry and remote sensing. I work with satellite SAR (synthetic aperture radar) data. I compare data with different parameters to check how the values influence the possibility of the detection of river ice.

What about your experiences as a woman in Geosciences?

I don’t find there’s a big difference in terms of gender in geosciences. I think it’s most difficult in the future; often a post-doc is short-term, perhaps 3 years. If you want to have a family you might want to have a year off for maternity leave and that could become problematic.


Dr Nolwenn Le Gall: a post-doc at the University of Manchester.

Nolwenn completed a PhD at Université d’Orléans, CNRS, France

Credit: EGU/Keri McNamara

What is your research area?

I am an experimental volcanologist working on the degassing of basaltic melts. I’m trying to reproduce natural processes. My PhD was on bubble nucleation. Now I work on the same things but looking at crystallisation instead. It’s still basaltic melts and the conduit so similar experiments. But now I will have to do some experiments in-situ too.

It’s really nice that my post-doc is three years, I don’t have to apply for new position. I have some technique development that will take time so it’s useful to have a longer post-doc.

How do you feel as a woman in geosciences?

I feel fine. I don’t really see differences. You see more problems higher up- there are more men. But that was before and I think now, during conferences we see that there are a lot of women giving talks and posters. It seems to be almost a 50:50 gender balance. I’ve never had any problems with men treating me differently because of my gender.

What advice would you give to other women who want to become geoscientists?

Do what you like. Just enjoy it- if you enjoy your work, that’s always better.


Dr. Grace Shephard: researcher at the University of Oslo.

She completed her PhD at the University of Sydney and is now well into her second post-doc. She is also received the Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Young Scientists at EGU in 2016.

“If, professionally, something positive happens to you I think you should try to bring up the other women you work with,” says Grace Shephard. (Credit: EGU/Kai Boggild)

What are you research interests?

I have a few different avenues of research. I’m primarily working with plate tectonics in the Arctic region so I research how the Arctic Ocean opened and how the surrounding continents and oceanic plates have shifted about. To investigate how and when an ocean subducted deep into the mantle, I try to integrate lots of different datasets, including on global scales. I completed a three year post-doc at the University of Oslo and then I was lucky enough to get my own funding to continue.

What are your experiences of being a woman in geosciences?

I’ve been following with interest the recent article in Nature about molehills building up against women in geoscientists specifically. I can only speak from my own experience- but I’ve never found it a big issue. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had very supportive supervisors and environment to work in. I have experienced isolated throw-away comments at conferences but I don’t let it define the geosciences and my experiences, so I just move on.

What would you recommend to young geoscientists?

Identify researchers you are interested in, and will enjoy working with, and don’t be shy to approach them with an idea and see how it goes. I think you have to be quite proactive and that’s something that you have to go through with the transition of when you become your own independent researcher.

Also, you should support people- it goes both ways. If, professionally, something positive happens to you I think you should try to bring up the other women you work with. I guess in the context of EGU- I was very fortunate to receive an award last year. I was nominated by two senior female researchers so I feel the need to give back to the community even more so.

 

Interviews by Keri McNamara, a volcanology PhD student at the University of Bristol who worked at the EGU meeting as a press assistant.

Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post that expresses the opinion of its author and those who participated in the interviews, whose views may differ from those of the European Geosciences Union. We hope the post can serve to generate discussion and a civilised debate amongst our readers.

Marching for Science in Vienna

On 22 April, Earth Day and the day before the start of the EGU General Assembly, scientists and science enthusiasts across the globe will be marching to celebrate science and to call for the safeguarding of its future. While the main march is taking place in Washington D.C. in the US, there are hundreds of satellite marches happening around the world, including in Vienna.

Representatives of both the EGU and the AGU, including the EGU President Hans Thybo and the AGU Executive Director Christine McEntee, will be marching together in Vienna in a united display of support for open, responsible research and for a safe future for the geosciences.

EGU-AGU Meeting point for Vienna March for Science (click to enlarge).

We would like to invite you to march with us in Vienna. Please meet us on Saturday, April 22 at 12:45 at the Sigmund-Freud-Park: see the meeting point marked in the image. You can find more details about the route and the march on the March for Science Vienna website.

Why are you marching for science?

You can download this EGU sign to bring to the March to show why you are standing up for science (the AGU’s instagram is a great source of inspiration). You can also join in with our campaign on social media by posting photos of yourself with the sign and tagging them with the hashtags #ScienceMarch, #ScienceServes and #EGU17.

AGU have posters, and other resources, to download from their March for Science page, as well as tips on how to get ready for the march.

Also, if you plan to march in Vienna, Washington DC, or any of the other satellite marches taking place in cities across the world, don’t forget to let Nature and AGU know why you are supporting the march by taking their surveys.

We look forward to seeing you in Vienna and to championing science together.

Some of the EGU’s Executive Office on why they stand up for science (from L to R: Laura (Communications Officer), Bárbara (Media & Communications Manager) and Philippe (Executive Secretary). Click to enlarge.

Dense rocks rise higher because isostasy says so

From space, the Brandberg Igneous Complex looks like a coffee-coloured birthmark set upon the bony complexion of the Namibian desert. Perfectly circular, its peaks soar in a ring of mighty topography, its massive granite cliffs etched with the muscular definition of spheroidal weathering. Its bulk seems to rise out of the barren landscape, driven upward by some unseen force.

In fact, granite intrusions like the Brandberg may actually be uplifted by powerful forces, unseen but not unfamiliar. New research, presented at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting last week in San Francisco, suggests that granite features like the Brandberg may owe their towering height to the elementary principle of isostasy.

Since Grove Gilbert first measured the formidable hardness and high density of granite in the 19th century, most geologists have attributed the striking topographic relief of many granite peaks to the former; they argued that granite was simply more resistant to erosion. But Jean Braun, of the Institute of Earth Sciences (ISTerre) at University Joseph Fourier in Grenoble, thinks the high density of granite paradoxically deserves the credit.

A Landsat 7 image of the Brandberg Igneous Complex in Namibia (Credit: NASA).

A Landsat 7 image of the Brandberg Igneous Complex in Namibia (Credit: NASA).

As most students learn in Geology 101, crustal rocks float on the asthenosphere like icebergs in the sea. The density contrast between the ice and the water dictates how much of the iceberg rises above the sea surface, and the same is true of rocks. Furthermore, when you melt an iceberg or passively erode a piece of crust, it will rebound to compensate. On average, the crust rebounds by about 700 metres for every kilometre of erosion. “That’s a well-accepted consequence of local isostasy,” Braun says. “The key is that this ratio can easily vary when you change the density of the surface rocks.”

For granite, whose density can exceed that of the rocks it intrudes by hundreds of kilograms per cubic metre, the rate of isostatic rebound can more than double. “There is nothing new about some granites being denser than the rocks they intrude and there is nothing new about the principle of isostasy,” Braun says. What is new is the realisation – albeit a counterintuitive one – that denser rocks will rebound faster than lighter rocks.

Inside the Brandberg Complex, whose peaks rise 2600 meters above sea level. (Credit: Julia Rosen)

Inside the Brandberg Complex, whose peaks rise 2600 meters above sea level. (Credit: Julia Rosen)

Braun and his colleagues demonstrated this by modelling the evolution of a hypothetical landscape using a surface process model that included isostatic effects. They varied the hardness and density of the surface rocks in the model and found that while resistance to erosion played a small role in preserving topographic high points, the enhanced isostatic rebound associated with density changes was the primary factor behind the high elevation of granite features.

However, there is some limit to the amount of isostatic rebound that can occur by this mechanism. “The principle of localised isostasy assumes that the Earth is made of vertical columns of lithosphere that can slide with respect to each other in any way,” Braun says. “However, we know this is not the case.” Instead, the intrusion must be of the same scale as the elastic thickness of the crust – a measure of its lateral strength. For example, in the thick, strong interior of continents, dense features must be about 100 kilometres long to rebound faster than the rocks around them while in weaker crustal regions, even small granite features can experience enhanced uplift.

After presenting these results at conferences like the AGU Fall Meeting, Braun’s idea has been met with nearly universal enthusiasm and support. “It’s too basic to not be true,” jokes Braun. Mostly, he and others just wonder, “how come we didn’t think of this before?”

The preliminary results of Braun’s modeling show that denser features form higher elevations (shown in red). (Courtesy of Jean Braun)

The preliminary results of Braun’s modeling show that denser features form higher elevations (shown in red). (Courtesy of Jean Braun)

On top of explaining the high elevation of granites, Braun’s theory may have broader applications for other places on Earth where surface rocks vary substantially in density. For instance, Braun cites rapidly uplifting mafic domes in a tectonically quiescent corner of the Tibetan Plateau. “These examples show that there is a simple isostatic component that has not been considered many places where you have large variations in rock density,” Braun says.

The next step is to test these theories against low-temperature thermochronology datasets, including apatite fission track and helium dates. These measures provide an estimate of the rate of cooling and uplift for large intrusions, and can be used to validate Braun’s hypothesis. Although the existing data support the idea that dense bodies experience enhanced isostatic rebound, none were collected with this purpose in mind. So next year, Braun and his colleagues will head to the Brandberg, where the granite bulges out of the Namibian desert, to see whether denser rocks really do rise higher.

 By Julia Rosen, freelance writer and PhD student at Oregon State University