‘Everyone really wants to actually do something’ How 500 women scientists became a global movement

Neuroscientist Liz McCullagh has been involved with the ‘500 women scientists’ organization since its earliest beginnings. Liz told us more about the initiative and the practical steps individuals and organizations can take to create action towards a more inclusive society.

The ISC’s commitment to promoting equitable access to science and its benefits underpins all of our work. As part of this commitment, our recently published Action Plan for the next three years sets out a proposal for a project on ‘Gender equality in science: from awareness to transformation’. This will build on and complement work undertaken  by the ISC-funded project ‘A Global Approach to the Gender Gap in Mathematical, Computing, and Natural Sciences: How to Measure It, How to Reduce It?;,  and by ISC partner organizations such as GenderInSITE.


In the first of a series of occasional blogs on gender equality in science, we find out more about the 500 women scientists organization, a grassroots initiative dedicated to making science open, inclusive and accessible. We caught up with Liz McCullagh, who’s a neuroscientist working on sound localisation in the brain at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Liz is part of the leadership of 500 women scientists.

How did you get involved with 500 women scientists? How is the initiative growing today?

I’ve been involved since more or less the very beginning, and now I’m on the leadership committee.

At the onset, it went viral much faster than anyone expected. Hence the name: the goal was to get 500 signatures, but that got completely blown out of the water. Over 20,000 people across the world have signed the pledge to try to make science inclusive and diverse, and to have a voice for women scientists.

Initially there was a huge amount of interest, and it’s grown and grown as we’ve got better at coming up with different projects, and really developing opportunities to get involved with tangible activities: everyone really wants to actually do something to help the cause. Having the platform, as well as some of the other initiatives, has also helped increase awareness of the organization and helped increase people’s participation. 

What are the main things people discovering 500 women scientists can do?

If you really want to get involved with tangible actions, one way would be to join a pod. They’re more locally focused, but we also have broader initiatives that pods around the world can work on together. It’s really a good way to meet other women scientists in your geographical area, and to have a vision for ways to improve science and diversity in that particular area. I’m a pod coordinator for Fort Collins, Colorado; it’s a really wonderful group of women.

The second thing to do would be to join the database, so that your expertise is out there and available to be used by anyone who may have a scientific question. 

Are there any gaps in the network that you’d like to fill?

We’re always learning, and as an organization we’re still relatively young, so we’re always figuring out new ways we can help, either in a different geographic area or with a different type of resource.

Just this past March we launched our ‘Sci Mom Journey’, to talk about different issues related to wanting to become a parent that are specific to women in science. That was a big gap that we hadn’t really pursued until a bunch of us got together and agreed to talk about it more and to really push for initiatives.

There are always going to be things we can learn and different geographical areas that we could reach out to more. We’re learning how to do that and how to best serve the women that are within the organization. We’re always happy to get feedback. We recently got really great feedback from a Japanese colleague who said that a better way to recruit women from Japan would be if there was a way to refer a colleague by sending an email to say that you value their expertise and think they’d be a great addition to the database. We’d like to include that in our new database that we’ll hopefully launch in January. We’re always looking for feedback on ways we can better service different areas or different cultures. 

What are you planning for the revised database?

We want to be able to scale up the initiative. At the moment we have over 12,000 women within the database, which is amazing, but we know that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. In order to make our database more useful and safer in terms of data management, we’ve hired a professional team to revamp it. That will allow us to scale up and make it more helpful for those signing up and allowing them to really customise a profile, and also to collect more data on who’s using the database

Have you had any links with disciplinary associations and unions or national academies?

Not that I know of, but we’re always happy for more people to sign up and use the database. 

If we want to encourage ISC members to find out more, what would your message to them be? 

Firstly, if they are an underrepresented gender minority scientist, I’d encourage them to sign up. Our database is only as good as the people in it, so the more people that we have involved, and the more diverse disciplines and perspectives, the more it will be used. So first of all, sign up and be a resource; I promise it takes about 5 minutes to do.

Another thing to do would be if you have a scientific question and you don’t want to ask Google or Siri, why not look in our database.

You have a number of resources for planning inclusive scientific meetings: why is it important to take a gender lens on meeting organization?

If we really want to change what a scientist looks like, we need to be proactive in making sure our meetings are accessible. That could mean providing funding for dependents, so that women who are mothers can attend, or making sure there’s lactation spaces, even better, think about a live-stream of the conference to the space so women don’t have to wait until coffee breaks – those are the best networking moments. Secondly, if you really diversify, think about who’s in front of the audience, in terms of keynote speakers and panellists. It changes perceptions of who can reach those positions. All of our science is improved by having diverse perspectives; the more people doing science, the better all of our science will be. A lot of the best scientific discoveries come from when we can diversify who we’re talking to about our science. 

We’re thinking about how to diversify some of our processes, such as for nominations. How can we do more?

All organizations need to do more to diversify, including ourselves. All organizations need to be constantly thinking and re-evaluating their processes to promote women and diverse groups, and also thinking long-term about how they’re encouraging diverse groups to get involved and to get nominated, especially people that may be more reluctant to put themselves forward.

The more we can do the better. Eventually, this question of what a scientist looks like might not even be a question, because it’ll be obvious that a scientist can be a young black woman and she’ll be just as successful as an old white male. We will not even be having these conversations. But we’re not there yet: we’re far from it and so we really need to continue to think about these things.

Photo: Averater (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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