Conservation of a Rare Species: Why We Need More Female Scientists

10/03/2015 15:53 GMT | Updated 09/05/2015 10:59 BST

Populations of wild animals benefit from genetic diversity, as a larger gene pool helps them survive disease or adapt to changing conditions. However the diversity of scientists researching these and other ecological questions is notably narrow. As a female statistician working in ecology, I have observed first hand the imbalance of gender in this field. However, ecology is not unique - the sciences are largely dominated by men, particularly in the more senior positions.

This pattern of men in senior positions is persistent, despite several years with high proportions of women studying these subjects at university. The pipeline of career progression is leaking women at a greater rate than men, at every stage of potential career advancement. Although there are signs this is starting to change and female attenuation rates are not as low as they once were, women are still being lost at a higher rate than men.

But how would science be different if there were more women at higher levels? Diverse teams with a range of experience and attitudes are more likely to come up with more creative and successful solutions. Several studies have determined that gender diverse groups make better decisions and have more group cohesion. The commercial realm is showing that companies with more female board members are more financially successful. At a time when we are facing an unprecedented set of environmental and ecological problems, we need to address these with innovative, dynamic and diverse leadership teams.

But perhaps there are more men in these leadership positions because they are just better at these jobs? A recent paper in Nature found that there were fewer female scientists in scientific areas that were judged to require greater innate ability and there were more female scientists in scientific fields in which hard work was thought to be more critical for success. This impression that science is naturally more of a male subject probably affects many girls from when they are very young. Lower maths performance of girls compared to boys is evident even before they attend school, but this discrepancy isn't present in countries that have greater gender equality, suggesting it isn't a biological difference in talent, but rather a difference in how adults perceive and encourage the skills of children to conform to their gender stereotypes.

These implicit biases also exist in universities and research institutes and they actively impede the progression of women in science. Studies show that when presented with identical CVs, those with female names are judged more harshly (by both men and women) and offered lower pay. Female applicants for grants are graded lower than men with equal experience and there is also evidence that female names reduce the chance of scientific articles being published. Furthermore, women with children face greater discrimination than their male counterparts and women in ecology are more likely than men to report being the victims of harassment.

There are so many biases against women in science, and although many of these are likely to be unconscious, they all provide the female scientist with larger, steeper mountains to climb towards success. This discriminatory environment can also gradually erode women's confidence over time, leading to women putting themselves forward less often for promotions or grants when compared to men with equivalent experience. This leads to positive feedback in men gaining further experience and higher positions and then reinforces the false belief that men are better at science.

To attempt to combat the emigration of women, there are increasing initiatives that provide grants for women, or grants specifically for people who also have caring responsibilities (which are taken up almost entirely by women) and many university departments are assessing gender bias in job appointments through the Athena Swan aware. These initiatives are a great beginning, but we still need to do more. The reality in science, as in so many areas of life, is that we have discriminated in favour of men for hundreds of years. We should not be afraid to take bold steps in an attempt to redress the balance.

At a time when the environmental is irrevocably changing and huge numbers of species are at risk of extinction, we need the ecological and scientific communities to be as strong as possible and this can be partially achieved by encouraging more enthusiastic and intelligent women to stay in science. It is morally right to do all that we can to provide men and women with equal opportunities, but I believe this will also lead to a stronger, more resilient and a more creative scientific community.

We will be exploring issues of gender and conservation leadership at a panel discussion entitled 'Gender and conservation: does it matter?' on the 21st March. This is part of the Cambridge Science Festival, which has over 250 mostly free events for all ages from the 9-22 March 2015.