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Working scientist podcast: Better allies, better science

Promoting diversity in science is not just an issue for the underrepresented - it's an issue for us all. In our latest podcast episode, we explore practical steps for organizations and individuals who want to be better allies.

In the third episode of the Nature ‘Working Scientist’ podcast series featuring voices from the ISC’s network, we look at the role of allies in science workplaces and spaces of power for making science more inclusive of diverse perspectives. Ineke Sluiter talks about successful interventions to increase the number of women members at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, where she is President. ISC Patron and former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson, shares how she worked with other women leaders to help give a voice to marginalized women on the frontlines of climate change.

Listen to the podcast and find the full transcript below:

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Ineke Sluiter: I see the talents, the upcoming young people, the ideas, the creativity, the way they bubble with energy. And it is very frustrating to me if I see that energy quenched.

Mary Robinson: Initially, they needed to be kind of encouraged that their voice mattered. But once they were affirmed in that way, they were so eloquent and they spoke from life’s experience. They were delighted and empowered–you could see it.

Marnie Chesterton: Welcome to this podcast series from the International Science Council, where we’re exploring diversity in science. I’m Marnie Chesteron, and in this episode we’re looking at the role of allies in the workplace and spaces of power. How can being an ally help to make science more inclusive to diverse perspectives? And what practical steps can we all take to support that?

Ineke Sluiter: If you ignore diversity and inclusion, it simply means you’re going to miss talent, you’re going to miss out on gifted people, and we simply can’t afford that. It’s a waste. So that’s a loss for academies as a whole.

Marnie Chesterton: This is Ineke Sluiter, Professor of Ancient Greek at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, and President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the ISC’s member organizations. It was established at the start of the 19th century as an academy for all disciplines–the humanities, as well as the natural, social and medical sciences. The Academy’s members are elected from Dutch universities, and like many science organizations, the profile of their members hasn’t always been very diverse.

Ineke Sluiter: So in 2011, about 16% of the Academy’s membership were female. So that’s a really low number, and it has steadily risen through 19% in 2014. And currently, after several measures were taken, in 2020, it was at 31%, which we’re actually pretty proud of. Because I have to say that, in fairness, that initial poor representation was a reflection of the poor representation in Dutch academia, in general. And one important aspect of this issue for the Academy was the leaky pipeline in Dutch academia at large, where, among students, women are even a little over represented than among PhD students, it’s almost equal and then at every further progressive step of the academic career, we tend to lose women.

Marnie Chesterton: Through its work on increasing gender equality in science, the ISC has been looking at how to move from awareness to transformation. Because although we’ve been talking about better representation of women in science for a long time, that isn’t always reflected in the figures.

According to The Gender Gap in Science project, funded by the ISC, women’s experiences in both educational and employment settings are consistently less positive than men’s. More than a quarter of women’s responses across the sciences reported experiencing sexual harassment at university or at work. Women were 14 times more likely than men to report being personally harassed, and consistently reported less positive relationships with their doctoral advisors. 

So, given we’re aware of the issue, how can we transform the situation? This is a question Ineke has also struggled with.

Ineke Sluiter: So then the question is, what could we do? We could either choose to reconcile ourselves to following this trend of very slow growth of the percentage of female academics, or show leadership from the top because that does make a difference. I think it actually always comes down to the same couple of points, awareness, visibility, and the courage to intervene.

Marnie Chesterton: And intervene they did. In 2017, 100 years after Professor Johanna Westerdijk was appointed as the first female full professor in the Netherlands, the Academy marked the centenary with a special call for nominations of women members. 

Ineke Sluiter: The miraculous thing was, sometimes the academy elects people that have been nominated more than once. But this whole group of candidates we had never seen before. And the quality of the nominations was outstanding. So think about visibility–apparently, because we had invited nominators, presidents of universities to send us the names of their best women, they now saw them with new eyes. They discovered them as they were. They were their role along with their great work, they discovered the talents in their own organizations, it was actually fabulous. And as a result, not just of that measure, we now have over 30% female members in our fellowship, and so we’re ahead of the curve. That’s better than the effort at the Dutch universities. It’s actually at the high end of what any university has. And I think that’s leading from the top. It’s proven a very effective measure. It works quality as high as effort. And for the fellowship as a whole. It’s definitely an improvement.

Marnie Chesterton: So, does Ineke have any advice for others who are looking to start their own journey for change?

Ineke Sluiter: First of all, it helps to find allies to form networks, women can also really help each other there. But this was actually a question that could be raised by men and women, men are often very aware that something is going wrong. And the question is, what can you do? There’s a couple of steps. The first is be aware of these issues of unconscious bias. So raise awareness, be aware of yourself. Second point, we would always recommend to find expert advice. There are people whose job it is to study these things and who know about this. Ask them to analyze the processes in your organization or your department or your team, the facts, the figures, so that you can work based on correct information, then formulate concrete goals and actions. And finally, make sure you monitor the results so that you can see what works and what doesn’t. And maybe the most important thing is keep hope because we will be getting there.

Marnie Chesterton: Having allies at all levels–from the grassroots to the leadership–is crucial for transformative action. Someone else who can testify to this is Mary Robinson–the first woman President of Ireland and a patron of the International Science Council. During her first UN climate change conference in Copenhagen, COP15, she noticed a real lack of representation from women. 

Mary Robinson: It was very male, it was very technical, and it did not incorporate a gender perspective. The delegates tended to be professionals, talking about clauses and paragraphs and fighting their corner on every word, but they weren’t sensitive to gender, sensitive to what it’s like at grassroots level, when such unpredictable weather patterns devastates your harvest, and you can’t put food on the table, and you have to go further for water. 

Marnie Chesterton: Mary began attending the COP meetings on climate change just as several other women were coming to the fore in climate negotiations, and having like-minded allies in those seats of power was really important.

Mary Robinson: We decided that we would form a network of women on gender and climate that would include women ministers and heads of agencies. And we call it the Troika plus of women leaders on gender and climate. We plotted to address a decision on gender parity, which was going to be 10 years old by the next conference.

It was very good for the wider gender constituency, which had been working very hard, but not to great effect on gender. And it was strengthened by this network of women ministers helping, and we then got the gender action plan. And we’ve now got the extension of the gender action plan, and gender is much more visible, though still not taken seriously enough because we’re still not seeing, you know, a full 50/50 balance parity in delegations and in committees. And we’re still not seeing the gender responsiveness that would help in a climate context. So there’s still work to do, but we’ve come quite a long way.

Marnie Chesterton: Part of this progress has been through the network mentoring and promoting the voices of women–especially the most marginalized groups.

Mary Robinson: In the COPs before Paris, we realized the importance of getting different voices, diversity into the discussion by the women leaders who were ministers having in their delegations, grassroots women, indigenous women, young women, and their voices, as full delegates at the table, and therefore able to be on panels, with the delegates listening, able to speak from the floor with the delegates listening were really powerful.

Marnie Chesterton: As well as curbing dangerous climate change, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals include ending hunger and poverty, and improving sanitation and education around the world. Gender equality–which is itself one of the 16 goals–is vital to achieving the rest. 

Mary Robinson: In my podcast, we have a byline, which is intentionally quite provocative where we say that climate change is a man made problem that requires a feminist solution. And of course, I always explain that man-made is generic. It includes all of us, and that a feminist solution hopefully includes as many men as possible, and that is where we really see gender being properly not seen as a woman’s issue, but seen as an issue of importance to all genders and to me, you know, a diverse and inclusive scientific workforce draws from the widest range of backgrounds, perspectives of experiences, so that it will maximize creativity and innovation in science. 

Marnie Chesterton: Being an ally means recognizing that addressing diversity and inclusion is a task for us all. It’s not just an issue for the people who are less represented, whether that’s in science workplaces, academies or in science-policy discussions.

By thinking about what each of us can do, we can all be better allies–and that helps science itself to move forward.

That’s it for this episode on diversity in science from the International Science Council. The ISC is working with partners to support two studies on the inclusion and participation of women in science–the GenderInSite survey and the Gender Gap in Science project. You can find more info about both of these online, at

Next week we’ll be speaking to two early-career scientists about the importance of making scientific workplaces safe and welcoming for all researchers. And we’ll be looking at practical steps that organisations such as the ISC can take to support inclusion and freedom of expression for LGBTQIA+ and other minority groups within science.

Ineke Sluiter FBA is Professor of ancient Greek at Leiden University and President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is a founding member of Athena’s Angels, a group of four senior women academics promoting equal opportunities for men and women in academia. She is the recipient of the 2010 Spinoza Prize and leads a large-scale research programme on Greco-Roman Antiquity, called ‘Anchoring Innovation’.

Mary Robinson is a Patron of the ISC. Robinson served as President of Ireland from 1990-1997 and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997-2002. She is Chair of The Elders, and the recipient of numerous honours and awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the President of the United States Barack Obama. Between 2013 and 2016 Mary served as the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy.

Find out more about the ISC’s work to increase gender equality in global science, through improved sharing and use of evidence for gender policies and programmes in scientific institutions and organizations at national, regional and international levels.

The ISC initiated this podcast series to further deepen discussions on broadening inclusion and access in scientific workplaces and science organizations, as part of our commitment to making science equitable and inclusive. The series highlights work being undertaken through different ISC programmes, projects and networks, and particularly ongoing initiatives on Combating systemic racism and other forms of discrimination, and on Gender equality in science. Catch up on all the episodes here.

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