Mulugeta Ayene/WLE

How identities shape the experiences of women in science

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“I feel like I’m at the intersection of these different identities. Being a woman, being from a different part of the world, being young, can sometimes influence how I am perceived and how work is perceived.”

-- IWMI scientist Indika Arulingam



Four women working in agricultural science took part in a Thrive discussion on gender and science. The discussion will be part of a forthcoming Thrive podcast, but a preview is here to help us mark this week’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

During one of her first job interviews, Izabella Koziell at 23, was asked what would happen if her Land Rover broke down in the middle of the African bush. “Well, you’re a woman,” her interviewer said. “What would you do?” She remembers that moment – and her response – clearly: ‘I’ll get out and fix it, or find someone to fix it for me.”

She didn’t get the job. “Maybe I was displaying too many masculine behaviors,” Koziell guesses.

Koziell is the Program Director of the CGIAR Research Program for Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE), and for women like her, who launched their career in the 1990s, there were many overt gender biases to counter. And while the world of science has seen much progress since then, we have a long way to go.

In December 2015, three months after adopting a resolution outlining 17 Sustainable Development Goals, the UN declared February 11 the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. While efforts have been made to inspire and engage women and girls in science, the UN states, “women and girls continue to be excluded from participating fully in science.”

Koziell and three other women in science from different cultural backgrounds and career stages discussed these issue in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Thrive asked the women to look back through their careers and describe how their own gender may have impacted their jobs – either as an asset or a limitation. Here’s how our group responded:

Left to right: Izabella, Claudia, Indika, Deepa share their insights on women in science
Francesca Billington/WLE

Indika Arulingam – Research Officer, International Water, Management Institute (IWMI):

I’ve found that it sometimes helps to be a woman yourself when doing field work and talking to women. I think it’s an asset. I feel there is a sense of solidarity which helps you to have more uninhibited conversations.

As a limitation, I feel like being a woman, being from the Global South, being young can sometimes influence how I am perceived and how work is perceived. And in a given situation it is hard to tell which of these identities is contributing to it, or which combination of identities.

Back when I was doing my Masters, a few days before my thesis defense, I was talking to someone I had not met until that point. I told him I was nervous about my defense, and then he said. 'don’t worry, you’re a woman from a developing country, I’m sure they will be lenient with you.’ I am sure he was being kind, but what he was trying to say was that I’m less capable of presenting a good thesis because of these circumstances. So that perception can be there. You have to learn to not let it get to you and continue on.

Claudia Sadoff – Director General, IWMI:

But at every level I still feel – as you felt in your conversation, Indika –  that there is often a presumption that a lot of women are in senior management positions for diversity reasons, as opposed to their own success and capabilities. And that’s a perception and a bias we do still have to struggle against.

I think it is easier certainly, than when I began my career 30 years ago. At that time there were fewer examples of really strong female leadership out there. Today there is an incredible range of highly visible, accomplished women that we can point to across the public sector and in the sciences. We hope that as more women demonstrate leadership it will diminish the biases that we see.

Deepa Joshi –  Gender, Youth and Inclusion Lead, WLE/IWMI:

There is this term called ‘Women in Pants’ which was meant to signify that when women enter positions of authority and power in public domain – because these institutions have not changed – the only way you can function and continue, or even move up, is by adopting masculine traits, personalities, attitudes, as well as performance expectations.

Because I think for a very long time it was identified, and still is, that the institution is almost like a gender neutral place, where everybody who comes in will move up entirely based on their merit and performance, that there are no biases operating against individuals.

Izabella Koziell – Program Director, WLE

In my career, I feel I’ve always focused on being myself. I haven’t tried to be someone I’m not.  When I started out, I was always the only woman on a team but this never concerned me.  Within ten years teams became more balanced and all the better for it! I’ve never paid much attention to whether I need to behave like a man, I have always simply focused on getting the job done, and delivering to a high standard in a collegiate manner.  Demonstrating that gender balanced teams are higher performing teams!

And sometimes being a woman has been an asset at points in my career – I was rarely stopped at the multiple police road blocks that existed in East Africa at the time - unlike my male colleagues! The jobs I have pursued I have competed as an equal, firstly because I enjoyed the challenge, but also to demonstrate that I can perform at a senior level, irrespective of being a woman, and having childcare and other domestic responsibilities.

For more of this conversation, check back for the upcoming Thrive podcast to mark International Women’s Day, March 8th. Look for that episode and more in March.

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Quotes have been lightly edited for readability.

Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners. WLE and partners are supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Contributors, including: ACIARDFIDDGISSDC, Sida and others.