The metaphor of the leaky pipeline describes how the number of women, Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and other minoritized groups in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine) fields progressively decreases at every stage of their academic careers (see Figure below). This phenomenon leads to a loss of talented and skilled people in STEMM, and to a severe under-representation of these groups at the independent investigator and leadership levels.
The leaky pipeline share of women in higher education and research, 2013 (%). Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates based on data from its database, July 2015.
However, the passivity of this approach has often been criticized. Women and BIPOC don’t leak out of the pipeline. Instead, they are forced out of it under pressure behind blockages. In The Leaky Pipeline Playbook, Miranda (2021) explains many actions and behaviors that reinforce and perpetuate the exclusion of women and people of color in STEMM fields. Some of these behaviors are, for example, weaponizing the unwritten curriculum (i.e., Many critical skills for success in an academic career depend on the adviser's willingness to teach them to the advisee), steering down into less prestigious, visible and impactful career opportunities, or qualifying academic achievements (i.e., Assuming that women and BIPOC achievements are due to their adviser’s effort or just due to luck). Only by identifying those pipeline blockages will they be removed. We strongly recommend reading this article (available here).
In this regard, another interesting and highly recommendable article has been recently published: Scientists from historically excluded groups face a hostile obstacle course (Berhe et al., 2022). In this work, authors propose to move forward from the passive metaphor of leaky pipeline to the hostile obstacle course. This new metaphor is characterized by the existence of cultural and structural barriers that have been put in place deliberately or unconsciously, to slow down or exclude certain groups. According to the authors, the different experiences of white women, BIPOC, transgender people, religious minorities, academics with disabilities, foreign-born, or international scholars are better represented as a hostile obstacle course.
Authors argued that the leaky pipeline fails to represent the experience of many people, because scientific careers are often more like a braided river with multiple routes. In addition, many of the solutions proposed, such as mentoring and recommending historically excluded groups for awards, are patches to the holes in the leaky pipeline, but they are not a real solution. These patches distract from the structural barriers in the scientific institutions, and they do not face the real and documented problems, such as bias in the way that applications are evaluated, bias in the peer-review process, racism, micro- and macroaggresions, sexual harassment, discrimination and other exclusionary behaviours.
Moving from the leaky pipeline to the hostile obstacle course means that the “obstacles are not the inevitable consequence of poorly maintained infrastructure; instead, they are barriers that have often been deliberately — or at the very least unconsciously — put in place and sustained”. Because of these obstacles in their careers, scholars from historically excluded groups spend more time and energy to progress, and, in the end, they have to be better than their colleagues to be seen as doing equally. The consequences can vary from the slow down of their careers, to real traumatic experiences that pushed them out of academia. Gender and racial discrimination play a critical role in the decision of women overall, and women of colour in particular, to leave science and academia.
Ultimately, this paradigm shift means that the emphasis and responsibility lies in those in power to actively remove the barriers presented in the hostile obstacle course. Only by the identification and acknowledging of these cultural and structural barriers, will they be confronted, and dismantled. And only by dismantling them, we will transform academia in a more diverse and equitable environment.
The author of the post:
Dr. Elizabeth León-Palmero is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU).
Miranda, E. A. (2021). The Leaky Pipeline Playbook, Inside Higher Ed. Available at: https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2021/08/13/actions-and-behaviors-thwart-advancement-women-and-people-color-academe-opinion (Accessed: 2 February 2022).
Berhe, A. A., Barnes, R. T., Hastings, M. G., Mattheis, A., Schneider, B., Williams, B. M. and Marín-Spiotta, E. (2022). Scientists from historically excluded groups face a hostile obstacle course, Nature Geoscience, 15(1), pp. 2–4. doi: 10.1038/s41561-021-00868-0.
The Gambia is the smallest mainland country in Africa with an area of about 11,360 km2. It is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on the west and by Senegal on the north, south and east. Sourced from the Fouta Djallon highlands on the east and connected to the Atlantic Ocean on the West, the River Gambia runs through the entire length of The Gambia, thus geographically dissecting it into northern and southern parts. It hosts vast interlinked aquatic habitats ranging from freshwater, brackish to marine. Along the riverbanks, rich extensive mangrove ecosystems serve as habitat to various marine organisms and support food security.
The estimated population of the country is about 2.5 million, 50.6% of which are women. Agriculture plays a significant role in The Gambia's economy by employing about 70% of the labour force, 32% in primary agricultural production; 54% of which are women and contributing to 25% of the country's GDP (FAO et al., 2018). Within the agricultural sector is rice production which is a staple food in The Gambia. Rice was mainly grown along the riverbanks through tidal irrigation from the river Gambia (M’koumfida et al., 2018).
Due to global sea-level rise, low-lying topography of the country, groundwater extraction, reduced rainfall and back effect, saltwater has intruded both groundwater and the river Gambia (M’koumfida et al., 2018). This has deprived women of affected regions easy access to clean water for domestic chores and agricultural productivity. Women are experts on swamp farming (M’koumfida et al., 2018) and are dependent on the river for farming and household chores. Due to freshwater salinization, these errands have likely become more troublesome by negatively affecting rice production and livelihoods of the women (M’koumfida et al., 2018). Strengthening and supporting women affected by freshwater salinization in The Gambia will tremendously contribute to food and financial security, and improve health of Gambians in rural communities.
In addition, aquatic science education is not included in the school curriculum. This coupled with lack of data from continuous monitoring to assess the effects of climate and environmental change along the river Gambia led to the birth of the Gambia Environmental Monitoring Systems (GEMS) Project. This research project provides the first environmental and biodiversity data set (aquatic parameters: pH, Salinity, Dissolved Oxygen and Temperature) across the whole length of river Gambia through active participation of various communities and exchange of scientific and local knowledge.
GEMS is supervised by Maiyai Taal Hocheimy, Director and founder of Gaining Research Experience in Africa for Tomorrow (GREAT) Institute, the first aquatic sciences research and educational institute in The Gambia and I have the pleasure to be the project coordinator. The institute prioritizes women empowerment and gender equality in all programs and projects. Particularly, at the GEMS project, we focus on empowering individuals, with emphasis on women, whose livelihood depends on the ecological services from the river Gambia. One of these beneficiaries is a female-dominated oyster harvesting association called TRY Oyster Women Association. Four women from this association were trained to monitor different locations along their site of work, Tanbi Wetland Complex. Weekly, hand-held equipment is used by the women to collect water quality and weather data along different parts of the River Gambia. Monthly, field technicians from GREAT collect data using a multi-probe meter to ensure data accuracy across the sequence of data collected by all groups. The women have a user-friendly data log book with pictures and illustrations (for those that are not proficient in the English language) where the data is recorded. The work of these women is continuously supervised by the field and lab technicians of the GREAT Institute. A brief description of the project can be found in this video.
Even though the GEMS project works with communities from all the regions in The Gambia, it was impossible to get an equal number of women and men on the project. This is because girls’ education is not equally encouraged as boys’ in rural communities. Tertiary institutions are located in urban Gambia and students from rural communities have to travel for studies. Mostly, men are permitted to travel for further education and women stay back to assist in domestic chores. This has hindered the representation of women in citizen science projects such as GEMS. But the team will continue getting more women involved because we believe that “... if you educate a women you educate a nation” and in extension, an entire generation.
Last March, the American National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published the report on the Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The evidences they compiled show that the pandemic has negatively impacted the productivity, work-life balance, mental well-being of women in academia.
One of the commisioned papers that integrate the report, shows how, although pandemia is causing burnout to all academics, this effect is stronger for women. Emotional and other effects of pandemic-related burnout were worse for female faculty members: 75% of women reported feeling stressed, compared with 59% of men. By contrast, in 2019, that number was 34% for female respondents.
Is that endemic for academia? Unfortunately it does not seem so. March brought multiple global organizations' contributions, the European Parlament, the Global Gender Gap (GGG) Report 2021 by the Global Economic Forum, and the policy brief of the UN among others. The GGG Report showed that, the number of years needed to close the gender gap has increased from 99.5 years to 135.6 years. Regarding the main highlights of the UN's policy brief, it reminds us (as did last year) that women spend 3 times as many hours as men in unpaid and domestic work, which on average represents 4.1 hours/day per women vs 1.7 hours/day per men, and that women's unpaid cotributions to the GDP equate to 2.35%.
The pandemic is deepening pre-existing inequalities and exposing vulnerabilities in social-economic and academic systems...and it's doing it very fast! Keep in mind that closing the gap or, as of now, impeeding that it keeps growing, requires active commitment. If you are in academia, remember the Athena SWAN principles and today, more than ever, commit to remove the obstacles faced by women at your institution...and at home!
On the 10th and 11th December 2020 we participated in the Negotiating the uncertainty of researcher careers event organized by the Researcher Identity Development European project, which aims at helping Early Career Researchers (ECRs), to develop as researchers and to provide them with the educational resources for acquiring the high-level competences and skills they need to act as researchers in a complex, highly competitive and interdisciplinary context.
The Gender Science AIL group was invited to present the different projects and ideas that we have develop throughout the years to foster the careers of women in Limnology. You can see the session on the RIS-SSIS Youtube channel: