On International Women’s Day 2022, we asked four DPhil students what it means for them to be a woman in science at Oxford Population Health and how barriers to gender equality can be challenged. Dani Kim, Ilana Levene, Yebeen (Ysabelle) Boo and former student Yvonne Joko Walburga Fru gave us their thoughts. This year’s theme is ‘break the bias’ and includes missions to forge inclusive work cultures and empower women’s choices in health.
Why does science need more women? Why is science a good career path?
Yvonne (Cancer Epidemiology Unit): Every person brings in a unique viewpoint and has a story that motivates and challenges them to keep making a difference. We need to see more women, firstly, because they deserve to be there, and secondly, they inspire the next generation of girls to know they are the torch bearers for the future generations.
Ilana (National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit): Science needs those with the best skills, and these will be distributed among all kinds of people. Where access to science careers is limited for women, the advancement of science suffers. Women also have unique experiences of the world and are more likely to have a desire to do research in those areas, which helps to reduce the discrimination experienced through selective attention to masculine issues.
Dani (Clinical Trial Service Unit and Epidemiological Studies Unit): There is still so much about women’s health that we do not understand. My pet peeve is the limited epidemiological evidence on the use of hormonal birth control and its long-term effects on female health. Since scientists generally choose to research a topic closer to their heart and interest, representation of women in academia matters.
What are the challenges to you as a woman in science?
Yvonne: As a woman, there are often many balls to juggle. Striving for excellence in all these important areas of your life may sometimes leave you exhausted. You need a supportive community around you, without which some of the brightest minds may quit.
Dani: Not limited to science, but employment gaps and childcare are a huge consideration for women who are usually the primary caretakers of children. Even though women in the UK are lucky when it comes to maternity policy (compared to other countries), the cost of childcare means that some women may choose, reluctantly, to take career break(s), making it harder to bridge the gender gap.
How can we challenge organisational and cultural barriers to gender equality?
Ysabelle: In NPEU, we challenge organisational and cultural barriers to gender equality. Each member of the unit acknowledges the importance of why it’s important to have more women in science, especially public and global health. We appreciate the strength that will bring to any health interventions by having both genders designing, executing and evaluating the interventions together. We understand the health differences between genders. However, we don’t see them as weaknesses; we see them as a space that needs more support via public health strategies.
Ilana: Athena SWAN is really important. Practical things like routinely putting meetings only in core hours (that are childcare/school hours friendly) have a big impact. Funding organisations also need to take a lead in understanding that career pathways and achievements are affected by being a woman, and making their application processes equitable.
Dani Kim: Hire more women in senior positions. Equality in the presence of women in those positions will be a powerful message and motivation to younger researchers, both male and females, aspiring a successful career in academia.
If your daughter followed in your footsteps, what advice would you give her?
Yvonne: ‘Take chances’, ‘Do not be afraid to fail’, and ‘Dare greatly’. This world needs your contribution. However, in the pursuit of excellence, remember to take care of yourself, your mind, your body, and your spirit. And remember to enjoy the journey.