RSF improves equity between women and men in science

15.07.2019

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Recently a group of Russian female scientists enquired research funding agencies to change the conditions of grants and fellowships for young scientists who take a maternity leave. The Russian Science Foundation has not only pioneered to support the initiative but it put forward a number of constructive proposals in response. The enquiry was made by the laureates of L'OREAL-UNESCO Prize “For Women in Science” Anastasia Efimenko, Maria Logacheva, Lyubov Osminkina and Nadezhda Brazhe. They told Indicator.ru how they achieved their goals, what is the “stop the clock” policy, how to successfully combine research career with family responsibilities and why it is important to support women in science.

- In your enquiry, you are talking about the need to revise the conditions of participation in grants for researchers who take parental leave. Would you tell us about your proposals?

Anastasia Efimenko: We propose thoroughly discussing and boosting support measures for young scientists by changing the conditions of participation in grants in terms of age restrictions or time limits. From our experience and the experience of our colleagues, such limitations lead to the dropout of a significant number of young scientists, first of all, women who find it more than a challenge to carry out research work and look after their families. The concept of “conscious parenthood” provides for a responsible attitude not only to work but to childcare and education, especially in the first few years after birth. This requires less involvement in research activities and often leads to a justified career break. But even though an overwhelming majority of young scientists, of course, return to science, often with new, re-considered ideas and plans, they find themselves in a situation in which they are faced with the fact that time has run out for applying for grants and fellowships. This does not seem fair to us.

Maria Logacheva: Our proposals are based on the so-called “stop the clock” tactic. First of all, it envisages an extension of the application period in the event of age and / or time restrictions which depend on the time of the defense of the thesis, or for the period of maternity leave. Secondly, prolongation of the time period during which articles and other academic achievements are considered valid for pre-qualification. This rule, which is common in most countries in the EU and the USA, is rarely used in Russia. Such rules are common practice in some private foundations, as well as in some calls for proposals for young scientists by the Moscow State University.

Lyubov Osminkina: It’s no secret that the percentage of female scientists among PI makes up one third of the total number of projects funded. This ratio is observed at funding programs for young scientists, then for mid-term and older scientists the gap becomes wider. In part, such statistics may be attributed to the unequal conditions of participation (mainly among young researchers) for women who have to take a break from their scientific careers after the birth of child. According to the conditions of programs for young scientists, there are age restrictions. However, these restrictions de facto exclude a hefty proportion of young female scientists from the list of applicants. It is often between 25 and 40 that young professionals face circumstances, often related to the birth of children, that require a temporary break in research works and, as a result, prevent a considerable number of female scientists (and, rarely, male scientists) from participating in such programs and competitions. To solve this problem, many countries have come up with the “stop the clock” policy. Therefore, we propose, firstly, that application rules set by research funding bodies such as Russian Science Foundation, Russian Foundation for Basic Research, should be upgraded with a clause that the possibility of applying for a grant is extended by the period of the applicant’s maternity leave and / or childcare leave. Secondly, it is necessary to provide application rules concerning publications with a clause stating that the period for the scrutiny of publications is extended by the time the applicant has spent on maternity leave and / or childcare leave. Thirdly, it is essential to consider the possibility of devising special training programs for those young scientists who had to discontinue research work for a period of more than three years after giving birth to several children.

- The Russian Science Foundation has agreed to accept your proposals, to some extent. Do you plan to ensure that the remaining proposals are considered?

Anastasia Efimenko: We are inspired by the leadership of the Russian Science Foundation that paid so much attention to our enquiry and that accepted some of our proposals and even supplemented them with other important measures. These are partial changes, but given that the Russian Science Foundation is the premiere and most respected research funder in Russia, the fine example they set may turn out to be useful for other funding agencies. Secondly, the journey of a thousand li begins with one step, and we hope that drawing attention to these issues will lead to many positive changes. I would like to emphasize that our proposals can and should be streamlined in accordance with the experience and research data of foundations and organizations involved in research policy. Therefore, we strongly welcome a dialogue between scientists and research funders. Only through this kind of cooperation that we can elaborate truly useful support measures for young researchers, and we would like to take an active part in it together with our colleagues.

Lyubov Osminkina: We are very grateful to the Russian Science Foundation for improving the conditions for participating in their grants and for extending the period of validity of publications by the period of maternity leave, a leave for child care, or a period after adopting a child. Even though it could seem only one step, it is a step in the right direction. I very much hope that this small change will facilitate the process of obtaining funding for worthy bids for grants. Of course, I would prefer more than that. In our enquiry, we point out that most European research funding programs in addition to the “stop the clock” policy run special programs for female scientists after childbirth.

Nadezhda Brazhe: It is possible that the amendments the Russian Science Foundation has agreed to make will somewhat change the situation. It is possible that the Russian Foundation for Basic Research and Moscow State University will also introduce some amendments to the rules of existing competitions, and so gradually we will proceed in small steps towards bigger changes.

- Could you tell us why you decided to make your enquiry? What was the reason? Who were members of the first group?

Anastasia Efimenko: It all started during informal communication in social networks, and then during meetings with several young scientists of Moscow State University. It turned out that we all have similar views on the general issues of combining a scientific career and a full-fledged family life. Moreover, the problems we encountered proved to be the same. We came to understand that there are solutions to such problems in Europe and the United States. These practices may be adopted in our country and could make life easier for young female researchers. And we decided to start collecting analytical data about such decisions and turn to the administration of the Moscow State University and to large research funders in Russia with a proposal to consider the possibility of amending the rules of public competitions.

Nadezhda Brazhe: It all started with a discussion how each of us managed to continue to do science after the birth of a child, what kind of support from colleagues we received and what we think could be improved to help young women who return to research work after maternity leave. Gradually, this discussion transformed into a decision to turn to the funds with a proposal to take into account the years spent on childcare when setting the age range for applying for grants and taking part in grant competitions.

Maria Logacheva: Such an idea has been on my mind for a fairly long time. It finally took shape as a result of a discussion in the community of young scientists at Moscow State University on Facebook.

Lyubov Osminkina: I wrote a message on my Facebook page and posted it on the website of young researchers at Moscow State University. I wrote about female scientists, about relationships in a team and about the conditions for participating in calls for proposals. In my vision of the problems mentioned, I suggested that young women should not give up. My colleagues suggested that I should write to research funders. An initiative group was formed, we filed an enquiry to the Russian Science Foundation and to the Russian Foundation for Basic Research.

- Do you have plans to organize a campaign in support of your proposals? Maybe someone has already agreed to help you?

Anastasia Efimenko: When discussing these issues with colleagues who are well-known in the world of science, I often received a positive response, many are ready to join our petitions which are about making changes to the age requirements. Unfortunately, we do not have enough time for a full-fledged public campaign, but we will try to attract young researchers and other public organizations to our initiative.

Maria Logacheva: There is a plan to contact the Council of the Society of Scientists. I have already discussed this initiative with some Council members, and they support it.

Lyubov Osminkina: I hope this interview will help expand the circle of supporters and attract concerned people who are ready to provide support.

- You have sent a letter not only to the Russian Science Foundation. Have you sent similar letters anywhere else? Where? Have there been any answers?

Anastasia Efimenko: First of all, we turned to the administration of our university, Moscow State University, and we received the support of the vice-chancellor for science. I must say that it is the Moscow State University that implemented “stop the clock” policy in its funding programs. This made it possible for one of my very worthy colleague to get award, although formally, because of age, she was no longer qualified for the standard definition of a young scientist. However, there are other programs as well, so we hope that they will be streamlined in order to support a larger number of specialists who, for a good reason, took a break from their research careers. At present, we are also expecting a response from the Russian Foundation for Basic Research. What we will do next, will depend on their official response.

- You personally have successfully combined both research activity and family life. Tell us how you managed it, what difficulties you faced and how did you overcome them?

Anastasia Efimenko: As I answer such questions, I always say that I would never have managed it but for the support of my family and understanding from my supervisors and colleagues who assumed part of my duties and were so helpful. In research work, some assignments can be performed remotely, and besides, I did not discard my duties to do some work during the time of my maternity leave. After the birth of my first son, I wrote articles and drafts for my thesis, during the second pregnancy I worked almost until the very last day, and a few days after giving birth, while the baby slept, I listened to reports at a scientific congress. Fortunately, the congress was held at the same location, so all I had to do was walk along a few corridors. Then came a reporting period on grants, and we had to make time to prepare articles, and discuss experiments with colleagues, on Skype or by phone. All this was not easy, and, of course, the efficiency of my research efforts dropped significantly at the time, but the support and assistance of those near me helped me to cope, and then successfully resume an active research career. I have to say that if a woman can afford to be close to the baby in the first year after giving birth, thereby cultivating in him the so-called basic trust, she will then find it easier to leave him with other adults and return to full-time research work.

Nadezhda Brazhe: I have always enjoyed tremendous support from my family - my husband and parents - and from my colleagues. It seems to me that this is the necessary condition for the continuation of successful scientific work after the birth of children. Both my husband and my parents are also involved in research work, and they support me in everything and they help me immensely, feeling at what moments I especially need help with the children. Thanks to them, I was able to return to experiments, writing articles, applications and reports on grants less than a year after the birth of the first and then the second child came along. In addition, I have always had invaluable support from colleagues. We conduct experiments in which several people participate. Colleagues would always help me out, and if necessary, changed their appointments and moved their schedules. They assumed the responsibilities of the preparatory stage of the experiments, so that I could concentrate my time properly to the real experiments and to writing of the articles. What is equally important is that both my family and my colleagues always believed in me, even when nothing worked out, and this gave me the strength to carry on.

Lyubov Osminkina: Yes, I manage to combine research works and family life. This is not easy: productive scientific activity requires constant work, which cannot be ignored. It was particularly challenging when I returned to work after maternity leave. There were no grants, the supervisor was to tackle completely new area of study, and there were no experts to consult with. Besides, I had to do some teaching: I began to lead seminars and workshops. My son was still a baby. What helped me through was hard work and support of my husband and parents. My husband earned for the family living. We got married early while we were still students. He also graduated from the faculty of physics but at that time (in the 2000s) he opted for earning for the family because of we both favored science, we would be half-starving. My salary was sufficient to pay for subway and basic childcare products. My mother stayed with the child while I was at work. But, in fact, it was round-the-clock work: in the afternoon at the department, night-morning with the baby preparing seminars and reading or writing research articles. Later, the child grew up, went to kindergarten, started his school, so it became easier. There was more and more research work. We made new discoveries, there was a lot to do. After I gained enough experience, I received my grants.

- Your proposals are relevant not specifically to female scientists, but to all scientists who are to take a break from work to raise their children. Of course, in the overwhelming majority of cases they are women, but still not all. Meanwhile, many people call for programs for female scientists in general, irrespective of family life. For example, the L’OREAL-UNESCO program is focused on that. Do you plan to propose launching similar programs in the framework of the Russian Science Foundation, Russian Foundation for Basic Research and other funders in Russia?

Anastasia Efimenko: I would like to emphasize that, despite the burning issue of gender inequality in science policy, we do not favor introducing some exclusive “female grants”. Instead, we call for providing female scientists with fairer conditions for participating in grant-awarding public competitions. In my opinion, such programs as L’OREAL-UNESCO “For Women in Science” are aimed, first and foremost, at supporting and motivating female scientists, until such conditions become common everywhere. Ideally, a fair approach to research funding and to career opportunities should make women in science support programs unnecessary.

Nadezhda Brazhe: The value of the L’OREAL-UNESCO “For Women in Science” program is far beyond description. It allows you to feel and to get support for a further development of your research career, which becomes particularly relevant when you leave science for some time after the birth of a child. If we think about launching new individual programs to support female scientists, then it seems to me that at this stage it would be more important to amend the existing rules of grant applications, because it is necessary to count a time period during which a woman had to interrupt work because of pregnancy and child care.

Maria Logacheva: Statistical studies on the gender inequality in salary suggest that the main gap occurs after the birth of a child. Child-free women and men experience no such difference. Therefore, family life does make a difference. I believe that special women-oriented programs and grants are not needed. Women are in no way inferior to men in intellectual potential and, given equal conditions at the start, can win in general competitions for grants. The measure we have proposed is not aimed at creating gender preferences, but at correcting an unfair situation, eliminating the so-called “fine for motherhood”.

Lyubov Osminkina: I am the winner of the 2012 L'Oréal-UNESCO Grant for Women in Science. Three times I applied for this award before I finally won. I remember how I applied for it, it is not difficult - you need to fill out a form and attach a list of publications. I did not believe in victory: the competition was pretty tough, with only ten winners every year. But it was this competition and this grant that gave me the opportunity to believe in myself and to gain new strength. Such programs to support female researchers are very important. It would be very good if there were more such funding instruments and inspiring programs. However, such large research funders as the Russian Foundation for Basic Research and the Russian Science Foundation will provide much more substantial support for young female researchers if they accept our recent proposal. 

- A response from the Russian Science Foundation states that for the projects funded the proportion of women PI reaches one third. It is clear that, ideally, this ratio should be about half. But as it turns out, even one-third makes all the difference. In your opinion, what is the reason for this? Why are women in science make up a minority, compared to men, all over the world?

Maria Logacheva: This is just one figure, whereas you need two. The second is the ratio of female to male PI among the projects applied for funding. Women PI make up about 30% of projects funded - and what is the percentage of women PI among proposals submitted? Same 30%? Or 50%? Or 10%? These are absolutely different situations. Speaking from a broader point of view, yes, all over the world there are less women in science, and the higher the level, the lesser. The reasons for this are varied.

Of course, this is parenthood, and not so much biological causes (which are common during pregnancy and right after birth), as social - social and personal expectations, unspoken rules, traditions, etc. Thus, research shows that more than 40% of female scientists leave work or switch to part-time employment after the birth of their first child. From my personal experience, I quickly went back to work after the birth of my daughter, and I was often asked: “And who is the child with?” My husband was never asked that question. All this creates a certain pressure, and not everyone can withstand it. In some areas of science there is a certain conservatism, a prejudice against women. For one, the director of a well-known mathematical school does not hesitate to declare: “If girls study better than boys, we can immediately say that the school is unhealthy.” And he says about the fact that girls are characterized only by perseverance, while boys are thirsty for new knowledge. Of course, this attitude cannot but manifest itself in the entrance examinations and in the learning process itself. And even though this may seem a trifle (compared, for example, with a complete ban on education), this is an example of discrimination. In addition, women themselves may develop such a thinking that science is beyond them. Such prejudices come from childhood: “toys for girls” are the dolls and dishes whereas “toys for boys” are cars and construction sets.

Nadezhda Brazhe: It should be clarified here that there are far fewer women in science than men only in senior positions - as leaders of groups, laboratories, institutes, or simply as leaders of large projects. Apparently, there are many reasons for this. One of the reasons may lie precisely in the fact that during a period when career development is in full swing and specialists become established in a certain research field, women find themselves involved much more in family matters after the birth of children, and then, after returning to research works, it turns out that it is too late. Age restrictions prevent participation in a number of grant schemes for early-career scientists, etc. Such schemes in many cases provide a good advancement for career development and starting your own research group.

Lyubov Osminkina: Let’s recall the story of Maria Skłodowska-Curie. At that time Poland had a ban on the admission of women to the University of Warsaw. She had to move to Paris for her studies. And this is just over a hundred years ago. In Russia, one of the first women's institutions of higher education, the Bestuzhev courses, opened only in 1878. Therefore, I believe that a small percentage of female scientists, especially in natural sciences, is a subject to gender stereotypes that have developed over the centuries. As the situation is getting better, the share of female scientists is increasing. And it will continue to rise if the Russian research funders react positively to our proposals.

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