IF YOU LEAVE

Yesterday ESCMID alerted me to another disappointing statistic, this one from Australian bioinformatics expert Alicia Oshlack. A career development fellowship is a pot of gold to young researchers and their new ideas, and twice as many men got one. It’s a treasure for the individual, but this type of award also determines the demographics of our scientific infrastructures for many years to come.

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And yet I would wager that the judges were not particularly sexist. There is a good chance that, on average, those men’s CVs truly were fuller, with more publications, more ongoing research projects, more grant money. And I think I can explain why with this simple email exchange, also forwarded to me yesterday by an acquaintance who knows my role in the Parity Commission.

I promised in my first blog post that I would be presenting all sides of our uneven landscape here, particularly those of heads of departments and others in positions of power. I haven’t delivered on this promise just yet, though interviews are ongoing. I’m finding that the substance of those interviews is often artificial, that those with any power often don’t want to admit any bias or truly aren’t aware of it. The workings of our flawed system are more clearly displayed when we don’t know that we are being observed and studied, as in this little exchange. The names of individuals and institutions have been removed or changed:

 

Dear co-authors,

Please find attached our responses to peer reviewers and the revised manuscript. Please send your feedback as soon as possible.

Thanks again for all the work you’ve done already.

Best,

[Junior researcher at important research institution 1, leading a multi-center collaboration]

***

Dear [Junior researcher],

Thanks so much for this excellent work and the pleasant collaboration. I would like to ask you to delete [Sally] as author. She is no longer with us and not involved at all any longer. Instead we may propose having our new colleague at [important research institution 2] as author: [John Smith].

Greetings,

[Head of department at important research institution 2]

***

Dear [Head of department at important research institution 2],

This manuscript relates to work that was performed by [Sally] 2 years ago… As Sally was initially in the list of authors when we submitted to [prestigious journal 1] and then [prestigious journal 2], she deserves it and we would need to explain to [prestigious journal 2] why we take this right away from her :-((.

Could we have her new e-mail address?

We cannot add [John Smith] to the authors of this manuscript, as he was not there for the work of this paper… but he will for sure be in all follow-up papers to which he contributes :-)!

Kind regards,

[Female lead of collaboration, important research institution 1]

***

Dear [Female lead],

Alright then. I do not have [Sally]’s new mail. And as I said, she left us in summer on good terms without a problem, but is now fully concentrating all efforts on her family.

Greetings,

[Head of department at important research institution 2]

 

Sally left to have a baby, and then maybe take care of that baby full-time for a few months, maybe even a few years. Sally will “lose” those years professionally, and surely she understands this. But had the academic lead not stepped in firmly, two years of Sally’s work prior to her departure would have been erased as well. I don’t know Sally or her director, but I can imagine that she is in the process of losing other publications because of this man’s use of authorship as currency.

I can also imagine that this man is not cheating Sally of her hard-earned research “capital” by any malicious design. It’s simply expedient to him to dangle authorship coins before the new face in front of him. That new young man will be putting those publications into his growing CV.

Raw sexism is probably not the primary driver here. Academic expediency is. Sally’s professional misfortune is that only female bodies can have babies. And of course, that her country’s social and cultural system determines that she will take the parental leave, not her baby’s father. So until we apply more flexibility to that construct, we should not be surprised of this: When you leave, a man–by virtue of human physiology–will likely be waiting there to pick up the reins. He’ll continue the path that is so critical to “career development”. He’ll reap what’s ahead, and sometimes even what you sowed long ago.

 

 

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