When I started my bachelor in psychology, I fell in love with the brain and its functions immediately. I was so passionate about it that next to my studies I engaged in voluntary internships and worked as a student assistant in several studies. I think that neuroscience is a highly interesting domain as researches have the opportunity to investigate their own scientific questions with the possibility to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain one day. However, what I realized during my studies is that most of the students were female whereas later on, higher positions are mainly engaged by men. Due to some underlying reasons it might be difficult for women to keep female majority with progressing career.
In science, you have to hold on to your ideas and fight for them, even if other people disagree. You have to be able to discuss, negotiate and assert yourself. Courage, strength, dominance, perseverance and assertiveness are characteristics men are admired for. However, this is often not the case with women. They often have to fight against (un)conscious prejudices, such as lacking the necessary toughness because they are said to focus more on conviction and common solutions than on dominance. Women are often seen as too sensitive and emotionally involved, which could make them too indulgent. Moreover, their behavior is easily interpreted as either too feminine or too masculine. If they are too compensatory, they are considered weak leaders. If they are too dominant, arrogance, haughtiness and imperiousness are assumed. Therefore, it is difficult to know how to behave, which in turn can quickly lead to uncertainty.
What strikes me the most is that I’m not the only one experiencing this gender discrepancy in neuroscience. Some of my colleagues, both male and female, have recognized this bias already. For example, Dr. Sarah Genon, who came to neuroscience from psychology, a domain mainly dominated by women, has very clearly perceived the different gender distribution within the two fields. Especially the field of neuroimaging is mainly dominated by men. Particularly when she attended national and international conferences, symposia or workshops, she was often the only female scientist. Frequently, she observed implicit bias, stereotypes and discrimination that were detrimental to women’s career in neurosciences.
At the beginning of last year, Sarah received a Google form to register as women in neuroscience in the Women in Neuroscience Repository (WINRepo: https://www.winrepo.org/) and noticed that the founder of this initiative was Jessica Schrouff, a comrade from her Ph.D. time who had moved to the US. Realizing that their career paths, despite geographically pulling them away from each other, brought them both in the same societally issues, Sarah Genon and Jessica Schrouff decided to join forces to build up a committee linked to WiNRepo to proactively support gender equality. Concretely, the online repository aims to help other scientists to identify and recommend female neuroscientists for conferences, symposia or collaborations.
I think that not only perceiving but also fighting against a grievance is highly courageous, especially since other women who might be less brave benefit from it. Their engagement into this topic stands out by researching evidence about gender bias in the field, setting up the website and engaging into discussions during their free-time (mainly during the night). Besides that, they also expressed their engagement by collaborating with several associations and initiatives such as BiasWatchNeuro (https://biaswatchneuro.com/), the Ethics and Society Program of the Human Brain Project (HBP) in which a Gender Action Plan with concrete recommendations for the future was introduced and the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies. All in all, I think that their active engagement and plucky attitude is absolutely admirable.
Nevertheless, the committee had to face with an astonishing amount of denial of gender inequality and skepticism of the relevance of the repository in the research community. Therefore, they tackled the problem scientifically by publishing a paper about gender bias in (neuro)science in the European Journal of Neuroscience to emphasize that this topic is not something of the past and that action is crucially needed now. In the paper, they not only use facts and figures to demonstrate that women are under-represented in the neurosciences, especially in senior positions, first and last authorship, prize awardees, seminar speakers and conference speakers, but they also identify actions that can be taken at institutional, organizational and individual levels to counteract gender bias. I highly recommend this paper to everyone (also to non-scientists) as it gives a comprehensive insight into the topic of gender bias.
Next to WINRepo, other initiatives engage in gender equality as well. As already mentioned, due to female under-representation in the HBP (e.g., only two out of the 12 major subprojects are currently led by female researchers), a Gender Action Plan was proposed including actions such as workshops and education plans promoting women’s participation in the project and encouraging their engagement in leadership positions. Moreover, the Organization for Human Brain Mapping for example provides child care at the annual meeting which makes it easier for single parents to attend the conference. Additionally, a Code of Conduct was introduced for the first time this year which aims at supporting and demanding diversity in terms of gender identity or expression, age, culture, ethnicity, language, national origin, political beliefs, profession, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status.
In my opinion, it is extremely important to raise awareness about still existing gender inequality since preventing actions won’t be entirely fruitful unless people are aware of the fact that gender bias is still a relevant current problem. As impressively stated in the opinion paper, gender discrimination must not only be tackled by institutions but even more so by each individual themselves, having more and more people discussing this issue can lead to big changes. Culture is shaped by the people who live it – therefore we have to make global gender equality our culture.