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June 5, 2023

Perspective highlights need for systemic change to make computational research a more welcoming field for women

Written By: Jason Daley

While overt discrimination and harassment of women is not as common as it used to be, women still face substantial barriers that many people in the computational materials research community aren’t fully aware of.

A new paper published by npj Computational Materials in June 2023 brings those issues to light and offers recommendations on ways to make the field more equitable for women.

“The goal of this work is that hopefully women interested in these issues don’t need to look up all these papers themselves,” says Rose Cersonsky, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “It gives people the resources, the data, the citations, and the articles with which to empower themselves, to fight for greater equitable practices. It’s also for those who are well-meaning and empathetic to gender inequities who aren’t fully-versed in the experiences of women in the field. We think they might have a bit of an eye-opening moment to see what we’re actually still dealing with.”

Rose Cersonsky
Rose Cersonsky

In fall 2022, Cersonsky had dinner with co-author Livia B. Pártay, an associate professor of computational chemistry at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. The two began discussing the barriers women face in the field of computational materials research; they found over the course of several hours that they had plenty to talk about.

A couple months later, Pártay reached out, saying she thought their discussion of the issues would make a good paper. Cersonsky agreed. The two began a collaboration, also bringing aboard Erin Teich, an assistant professor of physics at Wellesley College who has studied issues faced by women in science. The paper—featured in Nature’s flagship computational materials journal—arose from their partnership.

Among challenges women face is the impact of implicit bias, in which unconscious assumptions about the abilities and roles of women scientists influence the way they are treated by colleagues and institutions. Another issue is the expectation that women will follow the “Madame Curie strategy,” in which they must adopt a narrow band of personality traits for them to succeed in science. This includes modesty, quietude, an abundance of patience, and quiet determination. On the flip side, if women adopt traditionally male-associated traits on the job, like competitiveness, outspokenness, or self-promotion, studies have shown that they face personal and professional backlash.

Other major issues include others’ assumption that women will have increased caregiving responsibilities, as well as a lack of role models and visibility of women in science overall.

The cumulative effect of these issues, which are often interrelated, is an environment in which women in computational materials research, and many other fields, receive fewer citations, fewer grants and awards, fewer networking opportunities, disproportionate workloads, and evaluations and recommendations that comment on their gender and family commitments instead of solely focusing on their work.

And that has a big impact: Not only do women leave computational materials research at rates much higher than male counterparts, but fewer women join the field—with female participation stagnating for decades. By some estimates, if women continue to enter chemical engineering, including computational research, at the current rate, they won’t reach parity with men in the foreseeable future, as the proportion of undergraduate degrees awarded in the field has remained stagnant since the early 1990s.

Cersonsky says that while the paper highlights these issues, it also has a positive bent, including many recommendations and input from prominent women in the discipline. “A lot of things have changed for women in the field,” she says. “But we can’t ignore that there are still measurable inequities and unequal treatment, and societal effects and secondary effects that make our field inhospitable to women. And we need to fix these things.”

The researchers’ suggestions include creating a database of female and underrepresented computational scientists to diversify speaker lists and amplify these researchers as role models to future generations. The team also emphasize the importance of mentorship, both formal and informal, in the research community. Continued reformation of funding and research metrics would also help address unconscious bias. One potential reform is the inclusion of citation diversity statements in papers, which would help authors examine their citation practices. Finally, they emphasize that caregiving should be rebranded as not solely affecting women, and institutions should encourage parents of all genders to utilize professional flexibility and parental leave, without stigma.

Cersonsky says these recommendations are a start. But much of the change needs to take place at a higher level. “Really, one of our big audiences is institutions,” she says. “A lot of this change has to come from institutions in terms of initiatives like hiring, funding and those types of things.”

Change also needs to take place at the societal level to fix the “leaky pipeline” in which girls with an aptitude for the sciences drift away from those fields due to societal expectations and bias as they reach higher levels of education.

In the meantime, Cersonsky says she wants to give women who have chosen science reasons to hope. “We want to make sure that women in departments where they might not have female colleagues, or departments where they are siloed because they’re a woman, know that there’s a community of other women out there who care and are feeling the same things. And that are trying to push our community forward,” she says.

Featured image credit: iStock.