International exchange of strategies – Lessons learned

The underrepresentation of women in leading science positions has been recognized decades ago and is a globally discussed issue. Organizations, institutions and commissions have implemented numerous measures targeting the gender gap. Nevertheless, the progress in reaching a gender balance at the top level has been very slow and the issue seems persistent. At this year’s STEMM Equality Congress hosted by Science Impact Ltd in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on October 11th–12th, the NCCR RNA & Disease presented its equal opportunities action plan and exchanged strategies with researchers, policy makers, NGOs, academic staff and government representatives from all over the world.

This annually held meeting focuses on the discussion of equality, diversity and inclusion strategies in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM). Although this year’s topic was dedicated to intersectionality, the predominant and recurring theme throughout the presentations and discussions remained gender inequality in STEMM. The twoday meeting, to which over 280 participants from 28 countries attended, consisted of keynote speeches, panel sessions, workshops and poster presentations. The speakers presented examples and best practice of equality and diversity policy implementation with regard to leadership, as well as how to integrate equality in an organization and promote a change of culture. Some of the presented studies provided rather sobering facts and data on inequality such as, for example, how prejudices negatively affect recruitment and peerreview processes (PNAS 109, 16474-9 (2012), Nature 387, 341-3 (1997)) or nominations for prizes. Others delivered evidencebased suggestions on how to promote a change. These include the need for scientific research on existing measures (such as for example on the controversially discussed affirmative action, Science 335, 579-82 (2012)) and to act accordingly. A series of talks broached the importance of engaging male leaders as advocates for gender equality. As men fill most leading positions, they have the best prerequisites to impact cultural and structural changes. After all, the disadvantages related to women’s underrepresentation and the associated loss of diversity affects all genders. Promoting inclusion and diversity by structural and organizational hanges was discussed in various contexts. A very radical but effective example for a promoter to a systemic change was given by linking governmental research funding in the United Kingdom to the institution’s commitment to equality recognized through an award (Athena SWAN awards).

The lessons learned from our experience at the STEMM Equality Congress include the importance of carefully studying the impact of equality initiatives in order to effectively apply them, the engagement of power players, and importantly men, in promoting a systemic change of culture, as well as the benefits of exchanging best practice and experiences with other organizations, which ultimately face similar challenges with regards to closing the gender gap.

By Larissa Grolimund and Frédéric Allain