Miscellaneous News

Tuesday, 06 September 2016 10:41

Women in Regional Science

“Women in Regional Science"

(but more generally across social sciences)

  • Gender – and more general Equality and Diversity (E&D) issues – recently resurfaced in an open debate across different social science disciplines. This stemmed from the observation of the strongly biased composition of academic community bodies of various types (e.g. key-note speakers, conference panels, editorial boards, summer school, policy research groups, etc.). A strong gender (and race) bias has been observed by groups of female academics spanning across regional science, economic geography, innovation studies, international business, and economics. It has been suggested that the gender bias has increased since the latest financial crisis, which has exacerbated competition in labour markets.
  • In the Regional Science scientific community of the 1980s similar discussions were carried out and efforts were made to make the discipline more inclusive, for example by recruiting women into roles of responsibility within the community.  
  • It is acknowledged that, since then, the gender ratio has changed substantially. Evidence of such change was acknowledged, e.g. Regional Science Newsletter, October 2009:


see, in particular, the article by Brigitte Waldorf  “Women in Regional Science: A success story”.

  • It is realized, however, that the default choice in Regional Science, as in other disciplinary fields, is still highly ‘white male-dominated’. It is believed that this is not a success story for the community as a whole, and it will be a serious mistake to dismiss it as sorted while heading into the 2020's.   
  • In the latest decades a lot of debate has been around the lack of representation of women in science, with a presumption that gender imbalance is a phenomenon affecting mainly STEM. However, this is also true in social sciences and related policy debates, although possibly in different ways from STEM (e.g. not so much lack of participation of women in social science, but lack of representation in the more “visible” areas of the academic and policy debate).
  • The perception is one of women’s “tolerance”, more than real inclusion.  In fact, women are even very much appreciated as their presence makes it harder to point fingers against “old-boys-networks”. Women are also often sought because they are more willing to accept time-consuming tasks, like organizing conference.  But, in general, they rarely are involved in decision making processes: e.g. selection of key-note speakers, gender-ratio in the number of person-years as editors.
  • The problem is complex and has a ‘cumulative causation’ nature. It has been noted, for instance, that women participation in policy ‘impact’ of research is negligible across domains (e.g. S&TI policies, industrial policies, regional policies). Impact is now in several academic systems (e.g. UK) one of the area of ‘metrics’ used to assess academic performance. More generally, it is also recognised that other metrics such as citations or teaching evaluations strongly penalise women, affecting their overall career progression and public profile. See for e.g. (among hundreds of others):




  • Women are easily dismissed as “endless complaining”: this distorted attitude makes female social scientists feel often like censoring their own writing and apologize for speaking up. This does not encourage serious evaluation and representation of the problem, particularly in social sciences.
  • Also, and most importantly, many academic women in senior positions are already the first to be called upon for service work within their own academic institutions. Many academic women at advanced stages of career have and are increasingly called in decision making roles on the basis of gender ‘quotas’. It is not an imposition but women often have no choice, internal regulations on E&D fix quotas for female in management within universities. There is then a problem with overload, as women are still much fewer at present among the high levels of career because of the long-term glass ceiling, so this ends up by creating an impossible triad: more internal admin, more external engagement in the community, same skewed balance of tasks in professional and private life (particularly for women with young children).
  • There is a clear mismatch between the demand for women colleagues and the stock of women colleagues (especially at the senior level of career). This has led to an informal perception of ‘she is there because she is a woman’, in most cases very explicitly communicated. The latter is a severe form of discrimination; women are acknowledged on the basis of their gender, rather than for their capabilities and qualities.
  • A few decades of awareness is plenty of time to move women completely through the pipeline from students to settled academics. Looking around and not seeing those women, should be regarded as a failure and an urgent and pressing need to adjust the approach.
  • Blatant discriminatory behaviour is enduring on this topic. Behavioural change (including support to women self-confidence and fight against unconscious bias) and transformation in informal attitudes and collective perceptions are really difficult tasks: in comparison, putting the demand for equality on the agenda and making it part of the discourse using simply metrics and quotas is, indeed, very easy. Thus, as said also above, many respectable universities in the US and Europe are now obliged to have a female representation of at least 30% on ANY Committee, and ANY kind of procedure involving HR, such as recruitment, promotion, reward, etc. has to adhere to strict formal E&D rules. There are, however, other (typically male) mechanisms, such as lobbying and bargaining, that are hidden, informal and highly (unconsciously or consciously) biased.  
  • There is the firm belief that raising awareness is a first step in introducing changes. Reacting to specific unbalanced situations – as it is increasingly done but groups of female academics in Regional Science and other fields) is a first step, but there is still a large proportion of the academic world that believes that there is no such thing as discrimination in academia in general and in our field in particular.
    • An emblematic example of dismissal of problem that then led to some reaction is the following in Nature with respect to the STEM sciences:


As a result of the turmoil that that article generated, Nature (who first denied any discrimination) actually revised substantially the policies to commission articles, assign editors, and the numbers today (4 years later) are much more balanced.

  • Similar links with reference to all fields of science:


  • What is also needed is for academic men to step forward and champion gender equality for the health of the Regional Science discipline, and for other interrelated fields. Increasing inter- and multi-disciplinarity can help liaise with other communities and strengthen actions. Asking only women to take the lead makes this a "women's problem" as opposed to a social science and societal challenge: thus, a real effort at equality might be assigning some of this work to male academics. It has been noted that the help of senior men in start making gender equality a priority, raises the chances to address effectively this huge issue, that necessarily require a steady and long-term concerted effort.
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