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Quality through Equality – tackling gender issues in hydrology

Quality through Equality organising committee (l-r Dr Francesca Pianosi, Dr Valentina Noacco, Sebastian Gnann, Lina Stein, Dr Maria Pregnolato, Elisa Coraggio, Melike Kiraz, Lina Wang)

Results of a 1-day workshop organised by the Bristol University’s Water Engineering Group 

A professor asked our group of PhD students last year, “Who here thinks of staying in academia after finishing their PhD?” Of the 10 male students present, 4 or 5 said they could imagine continuing in academia. None of the 5 female students raised their hand. When asked for their reasons for not wanting to stay in academia, some of the things mentioned were the challenge of combining family and academia, a lack of role models or different career aspirations.

This experience started the idea of organising a workshop on gender issues in hydrology, with the aim of raising awareness of unconscious biases, offer role models and discuss ideas on how to make the hydrologic community more diverse. Although the focus of the workshop was on gender diversity, most things we learned apply as well to issues related to misrepresentation of ethnic minorities or disabled scientists.

To achieve the aims mentioned above, the workshop included: three invited speakers (Prof Hannah Cloke, Dr Joshua Larsen, Prof Elena Toth) who shared their experiences regarding gender issues in hydrology; a talk and a training on unconscious biases (Prof Havi Carel); and a group discussion. The workshop was attended by 44 hydrologists, mainly PhD students, of which 28 were female and 16 were male.

One highlight of the day was the presentation of Hannah Cloke talking about her career progress to full professor while at the same time raising four kids. Together with Elena Toth and Joshua Larsen, she agreed that combining academia and raising a family is possible, because academia offers one of the most flexible work environments possible. However, it does need a supportive stance of the university to enable that flexibility (flexitime working hours, childcare facilities, flexible childcare support for conferences) and supportive colleagues. Hannah finished with good advice for all PhD students, but especially women or members of minorities: A work-family-life balance is essential. Say no before you are overwhelmed and exhausted, but: be brave! Say yes to opportunities that scare you and do great science! And encourage each other to be brave. This is definitely advice I will try to implement in my life.

The afternoon included an unconscious bias training by Professor Havi Carel (watch her TED talk about unconscious bias) and group discussions around how academia can become more diverse and how we can create an enjoyable academic environment.

Some of the topics we discussed were:

What can senior and peer colleagues do? 

Often postgraduate and early career researchers suffer from lack of communication at their institutions. Peer-to-peer mentoring or senior-to-junior mentoring may offer opportunities for discussion to take place, particularly about equality/inclusion/diversity issues. When exclusion/discrimination problems are experienced/witnessed, having a range of peer and senior people to discuss with becomes very important, and facilitates reporting to leadership if needed. These meetings and discussions will also give opportunities to people who may otherwise feel their problems are overlooked, to find support, be empowered and build up their self-confidence. 

What can leadership do? 

To specifically include researchers with caring responsibilities some attendees mentioned that it would be helpful if institutions could improve access to affordable childcare - this may include nurseries at University as well as more flexible reimbursement for childcare during specific events, such as conferences, where children cannot be brought along by parents.

What is the role of role models? 

The attendees agreed that role models can be vital in shaping career pathways as they inspire, work as advisors and can start or change career aspirations. Role models should be relatable (by gender, ethnicity, etc.) and are thus not always available in less diverse environments. However, if role models do not exist new ways to develop them can be used and should be encouraged. For example, Twitter or other social media can offer a great selection of diverse role models from all over the world. 

What is success in academia (or in life)? 

Success can be defined in many ways. Some people want to make a difference, some want to publish high quality material, some want a good work-family-life balance, and some want all of those together. This highlights how important it is for line managers, supervisors, and colleagues to accept and nurture this diversity. A redefinition of success should be flexible and shaped according to the people in a certain work environment. This will hopefully lead to a more enjoyable and a more productive work environment. 

The feedback we received from the day was overwhelmingly positive. This includes both talking to attendees and evaluating questionnaires people filled out at the end of the day. The discussions about the topics and the opportunity to share experiences with others were found the highlights of the workshop. A large part of the participants felt more aware about biases and more empowered to tackle them. Some changes are already happening as a result of the workshop, for example our research group is diversifying social activities to be more inclusive, and both the British Hydrological Society as well as the Young Hydrologic Society have appointed EDI (Equality, Diversity & Inclusion) champions now! With one third of the 44 attendees being male, the workshop demonstrated that not just women are interested to learn about biases and discuss their experiences.

We thank the GW4 Water Security Alliance, the Cabot Institute and the School of Engineering of Bristol University for funding this event. A big thank you to our three speakers and Havi Carel who conducted the training, and to all attendees for creating an inclusive and productive atmosphere. Now it is our task to implement what we have learned and communicate the results as widespread as possible. And on a personal note, I definitely feel there is a future in academia for me now.

If you are interested in organising a similar event at your institution and have any questions, feel free to contact us: hydro-equality2019@bristol.ac.uk

Further information and material can be found on our website.

Some further reading about the topic of diversity and bias in STEM, including a list of scientific literature documenting the challenges women and minorities face in STEM subjects.


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This blog was written by Cabot Institute member Lina Stein and other members of the organising committee, a hydrology PhD student in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Bristol.
Lina Stein

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