women in science

Help us fight patriarchy, one comic strip at a time!

Help us fight patriarchy, one comic strip at a time!

Women in science/geodynamics: a topic we have discussed before and should continue to discuss, because we’re not there yet. In this new Wit & Wisdom post, Marie Bocher, postdoc at the Seismology and Wave Physics group of ETH Zürich, discusses a range of all-too-common encounters women face and a possible solution to awareness: comics (drawn by Alice Adenis, PhD student at ENS Lyon).

Credit: Alice Adenis

You know it is so much easier for women in science these days

“Oh I don’t hire female PhD students anymore: they get pregnant and then they’re lost for science”

“Yes, I remember you, you were wearing that red dress last time”

“Now that you have responsibilities, you can’t get pregnant again”

Oh, yes, they needed a woman for this committee, that’s why they asked you

And my two personal favourites:

“You should be happy that someone called you an angel [author’s note: in a professional setting], that means that you are beautiful, what are you complaining about?”

“I do not understand why women need to work, I mean, my wife did a marvelous job raising our children while I was working, I don’t get why this way of life has to change.”

These statements have been heard in real life, in the professional setting of the research lab (or at a conference), and were directed towards real humans, who share the particularity of being both women and Earth scientists (I know! Crazy, right?). If you have said similar things or think that some (or all) of these sentences are not that big of a deal, please go to the end of this article: I have a small text just for you! Anyway, I am pretty sure I’m not the only one to find this type of comments disturbing, to say the least. And I want to do something about it.

Credit: Alice Adenis

One of the first steps in the fight against sexism is to identify and describe the various ways it is expressed in our community. Research in geodynamics is definitely international, and patriarchy comes in different flavours all around the world. Each lab has its own blend of cultures and individuals that leads to different climates. That is also true for conferences and other events. As a result, the experience of working as a female in academia and developing as a scientist varies.

Credit: Alice Adenis

However, the patriarchal power structures and strategies are similar, even if the degree to which those are expressed in a specific setting varies. Here is a diagram that, I think, sums up the variety of barriers to gender equality we face in academia pretty well:

Diagram summing up the different barriers to gender equality in academia, taken from Holmes (2015).

Credit: Alice Adenis

The sentences I quoted in the beginning of the article, and illustrated by Alice Adenis throughout this post, are examples of sexist microaggressions (look up the interactional circle in the diagram!). Generally speaking, microaggressions are, according to Derald Wing Sue (2010), “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership”. In the context of sexism, they remind women of the stereotypical roles society has assigned to them: we should be pleasant to the eye; our most important achievement should be to become a mother; we are not as competent as men in science, and therefore any attempt to reach parity in committees means that women are helped or preferred over more competent men… Taken individually, and depending on the person they are addressed to, they go unnoticed, they are annoying, or they are deeply hurtful. Put together and accumulated over time, they create a chilly climate for women in academia and contribute to discourage young female researchers to pursue an academic career.

Credit: Alice Adenis

These sexist microaggressions are the subject of an initiative to which I contribute, together with Alice Adenis, Claire Mallard, Maëlis Arnould, Martina Ulvrova, Mélanie Gérault and Nicolas Coltice: the project “did this really happen?!“. We gather testimonies of everyday sexism in academia, translate them into comics, and publish them on this blog. The aim is to show the nature of current everyday sexism in academia, to make it visible to people who do not see it, and to start a conversation in our community on how we can do better, be more inclusive and more respectful of each other. To achieve this goal, we need you, dear reader. You want to contribute? Here is what you can do:
• Enjoy reading the comics, and think about how you would have reacted in such situations
• Share the contents of the website on your favorite social media
• Print some comics and put them in the common room of your lab to start discussions
• Share one of your personal stories with us, anonymously or not, through this form

Finally, you can join the course on unconscious bias and the session on ‘promoting and supporting equality of opportunities in geosciences’ of the next EGU general assembly in Vienna!

Hope to see you there!

Credit: Alice Adenis









A text to those who do not see why I ‘make such a fuss’ about some people sometimes saying stuff which are ‘maybe a bit sexist’.

Marie Bocher

You might feel like I’m attacking you. I am not. I’m against sexist behaviour – not against people. I am not fighting against men, I am fighting against patriarchy. I have very rarely encountered profoundly sexist people, and I am convinced that the people who did say the sentences I gave as an example meant no harm. Moreover, I have also said sexist (and racist) stuff and will probably say more in the future, because – like the majority of researchers right now – I grew up and live in a white-supremacist and patriarchal society, and this affects my behaviour even if I don’t want to, even if I am a convinced feminist, fighting for a world with more equality.

That being said, here is how I interpret the example sentences and why I think they are not acceptable:

“You know it is so much easier for women in science these days”
This sentence is a classical variation on the concept that women are now favoured over more competent men because of parity issues. While the discrimination against women during the recruitment process has been documented (see for example this article on CV selection, this article on the letter of recommendations, and this article on the same topic), I am still trying to find a study on all these incompetent women who steal the jobs of competent men…

“Oh I don’t hire female PhD students anymore: they get pregnant and then they’re lost for science”
By saying that, you suppose that every woman will systematically want children and renounce her career plans as soon as she becomes a mother. This results in restricting women to only one of the many lives they could choose for themselves. This is also gender discrimination and illegal in a lot of countries.

“Yes, I remember you, you were wearing that red dress last time”
When you say that, you send the message that you are paying more attention to my appearance than to what I have to say. This is objectifying and out of place in a professional setting.

“Now that you have responsibilities, you can’t get pregnant again”
Choosing to have a child or not IS A PERSONAL DECISION. Please do not give your opinion on these matters unless your colleague actually asks for it.

Alice Adenis: Cartoonist, Data Scientist, and PhD in geophysics

“Oh, yes, they needed a woman for this committee, that’s why they asked you.”
You are implying that I am not competent for this committee, but only selected for my gender. That is insulting.

“You should be happy that someone called you an angel [author’s note: in a professional setting], that means that you are beautiful, what are you complaining about?”
See the red dress remark.

“I do not understand why women need to work, I mean, my wife did a marvelous job raising our children while I was working, I don’t get why this way of life has to change.”
Again, this restricts women into one role, that does not necessarily fit everybody.

 Holmes, M. A. (2015) A Sociological Framework to Address Gender Parity, in Women in the Geosciences: Practical, Positive Practices Toward Parity (eds M. A. Holmes, S. OConnell and K. Dutt), John Wiley & Sons, Inc, Hoboken, NJ. doi: 10.1002/9781119067573.ch3
 Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. John Wiley & Sons, 2010.

Work-life balance: insights from geodynamicists

Work-life balance: insights from geodynamicists

Maintaining a good work-life balance is essential for a steady career and happy life in academia. However, like with all good things, it is not easy. In this new Wit & Wisdom post, Jessica Munch, PhD student at ETH Zürich, explores how to achieve a good work-life balance.

Jessica Munch
Credit: Manon Lauffenburger

Research is a truly amazing occupation, especially in geodynamics (okay, that might be a bit biased…). However, disregarding the position you have academia, research is also a job asking for a lot of commitment, an ability to deal with pressure, (very) good organisational skills and an ability to deal with everything on time to (hopefully) stay in academia (if you want to learn more about stress and pressure effects on researchers, there are plenty of articles related to that on the web – if you did not experience them by yourself already – yay!) Hence, it seems that this dream job can sometimes turn into a nightmare, which could partly explain why so many people quit academia.

The solution to avoid having to make such an extreme decision as quitting? The legendary work-life balance: how to reconcile a job that you cannot get out of your mind once you’re done with your day (it’s not like you can easily switch off your brain once you leave your office and forget about all the questions you are trying to answer with your research, right?) with your private life, hobbies, and families?

I wanted to try to figure out what a work-life balance really means. At the very least, I wanted to find a more meaningful answer than wikipedia’s definition:

Work-life balance is a concept including the proper prioritisation between work (career and ambition) and lifestyle (health, pleasure, leisure, family)

The definition I would give based on my limited experience, is that a work-life balance is an (often rather fragile) equilibrium between academia and your private life that allows you to stay efficient and motivated about your research without losing the link with/neglecting the world outside. All of that while being happy and healthy. Easy, no?

Given my restricted experience with this balance, I wondered how other researchers at different stages in their career deal with this. I contacted several researchers and they took the time to reply to my questions although they had a very tight schedule (thanks you very much!).

A first insight comes from Susanne Buiter, Team leader at the Geological Survey of Norway: “I guess the fact that I am writing you in the weekend, on a Saturday evening says something about my balancing work and private life at the moment!”. Sounds quite tough, but then she gives some explanations. She appreciates that everyone is very dedicated to their research in our field. This often leads to long and rather unconventional working hours for research and teaching duties. This is fine as long as it is voluntary, but it should not become an expectation. Susanne’s take on this is that there should be flexibility from both sides, and that it is absolutely fine that some weeks are very busy as long as other times can be more relaxed. Considering her research not only as a job but also as a hobby seems to allow for a lot of dedication while keeping being her both happy and motivated. She also raises the question if anyone is able to actually do all the work he or she has to do when only working regular hours.

A second opinion on this precious work-life balance comes from an early career researcher, Marie Bocher, a postdoc at ETH Zürich. When discussing with her, she first points out that a work-life balance is not necessarily a condition to do a good research: one should not directly link the lack of balance in your life to a burnout. For Marie it is okay to work a lot, as long as her research is meaningful to her and she is efficient and motivated. Sometimes you work really hard, do not have a real balance, have no time for hobbies, etc., but this does not necessarily mean you are going to end up with a burnout. These kind of moments can actually be enjoyable, because you often notice that you are efficient and making progress, which is quite rewarding. Hence, what you need in research (even more than a balanced life) is a meaning to what you are doing or a reason for going to work every morning. This is what will prevent you from having a burnout and will help you to be a happy researcher. Support and validation from peers can also help.

However, Marie wonders if the work-life balance issue has always been an issue in academia. She mentions the fact that sometimes people feel pressure to have a balanced life according to someone else’s definition. Sometimes colleagues comment on the fact that you work late and that this is not normal, and that you should have a hobby (pressure to have hobbies, quite paradoxical, no?). This might result in you pushing yourself to do activities even though you would prefer to for once hang out at home and relax during your weekend. Not everyone needs to have an hyperactive life. Instead, people should just try to live a life they enjoy.

Finally, she raises the point that work-life balance is actually a dynamic equilibrium: it is something that changes depending on your situation. You cannot organise yourself the same way if you are single, if you have a partner, or if you have kids. It is a hard to find balance and that evolves with life and responsibilities.

Potentially dangerous/lethal way of working on your work-life balance
Credit: Antoine Grisart

Speaking about kids and family, the third and last (but definitely not least) thoughts on this topic come from Saskia Goes, lecturer/reader at Imperial College London. For her, having a balanced life means having time for other things besides works and occasionally time for herself – a definition she is not sure she could apply to her own life where she constantly has to juggle between work and family. Saskia explains that it is a continuous challenge to do enough work to keep the department happy and functioning, but to also say no to enough work so that she still has time for her own research, students and her family. She also points out that she has very little time to do research herself – only a few hours now and then. Her main research activity at the moment actually consists in working with students and postdocs on their papers.

When asked how she reconciles family life with her work, Saskia replies that it is doable, but only with sufficient support in the form of a partner, school care, family or friends. Moreover, she emphasises that you need to accept that you simply cannot keep up with people who work 60 to 80 hours every week and can attend three to four conferences a year. Some types of research do not work with a family, unless you have a partner who can significantly help out for a while. Bringing up the fact that a job in academia often implies a lot of moving (research positions in different countries, etc.), Saskia mentions that until now, she only moved once with her kids. The main challenge was then the lack of support (for instance from friends and family) when you move to the new place.

Finally, when I asked her for tips on how to manage all of this, she suggested to make lists to keep track of what needs to be done when, and to then divide and plan the tasks day by day, week per week so that they look manageable. The main challenge lies in trying to balance the amount of things you take on with the time you have!

According to these different insights on the work-life balance, a universal definition seems impossible. Instead, the precious balance appears to be quite personal. It depends on your situation in life, on how much your time you can actually dedicate to your project, and your ability to manage the tasks you need to do (or refuse to do). Hence, the work-life balance is a very personal concept everyone has to figure out for him/herself. Ultimately, it is just a matter of being happy with what you do.

Why there should (not) be more women in geodynamics

Why there should (not) be more women in geodynamics

Nowadays, equality is cool. Everyone is always going on about how women and men should get the same opportunities. In science, and hence, geodynamics, women are still a bit behind men for both historical (women only recently started graduating more in exact sciences) and unconscious-bias reasons. Therefore, there are lots of programs in order to stimulate women to go into science and, more importantly, stay there.

However, no one really considers the negatives of having more women in geodynamics. And that’s why I’m here. Let me present to you a very comprehensive and entirely unbiased list of reasons why there should not be more women in geodynamics:

  • There would be a queue for the ladies toilet during coffee breaks at conferences.
  • None of our male colleagues would be able to focus on work any more, because we are distractingly sexy.
  • Ultimately, peer review would be less strict, because men would be afraid they might make us cry with their criticism.
  • More posters would be pink or purple (so mine won’t stand out any more).
  • The science would be better and there would be more discoveries, and who wants that, really?
    • And now the floor is yours: I hope I initiated a healthy discussion (without a weak seed! Or potato!) – surely you agree there shouldn’t be any more women in geodynamics, right? Leave a comment below!

      PS: For those less trained in sarcasm or irony: I mean the complete opposite, of course – these are all silly reasons! I also wanted to highlight some recent comments on women in science that reached the media, to show that there still is a significant bias against women in science. There should be more women in geodynamics! Although I would be devastated about the toilet queue.