“We need to be vigilant to stop biases occurring” – Solving the challenges of gender balance in science. An interview with Professor Jonathan Eisen

PeerJ Editorial Board Member Professor Jonathan Eisen, University of California, Davis

PeerJ Editorial Board Member Professor Jonathan Eisen, University of California, Davis













We are delighted to be sponsoring Finding Ada an event celebrating women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). At PeerJ we believe the achievements of women deserve to be recognised, and we also take great importance in building gender diversity within both our Editorial and Advisory Boards.

By way of our own celebration in the months leading up to the 200th anniversary of Ada Lovelace’s birthday we have been highlighting some of the women who make up our Editorial and Advisory Boards, and their views on the challenges facing women in science today.

This month we spoke to Academic Editor Professor Jonathan Eisen to get a male perspective on the subject. Here’s what he said:

What do you see as the explicit and implicit biases facing women in science today?
Currently, throughout the world, there are both explicit and implicit biases that occur that hinder the careers of women in science. Fortunately, many of the explicit (e.g., open sexism, sexual harassment, etc) biases have been greatly reduced in many countries. But there are still many places where open sexism occurs quite frequently.  In addition, there are a large number of ways implicit biases (i.e., those that are not necessarily purposefully trying to be biased against women) affect women’s careers in science.  For example, since women on average tend to be more responsible for child care in families with children, lack of support for childcare in various venues has a disproportional effect on women.  One classic example of implicit bias is in the discussion and recognition of scientists in the media, popular press, and in various related activities.  For various reasons, the work on male scientists is overrepresented in such promotional actions.  And thus activities like Finding Ada help both balance out such biases and also provide role models for women regarding careers in science.

At PeerJ we believe in gender equality and we strive towards this – why do you think this important for science and the publishing of scientific research?
Explicit and implicit biases against women occur everywhere in society.  And science and science publishing is no exception. Biases can occur in awards, in peer review, in grant review, in citation, in journal selection, in determination of author lists, and many more areas.  Thus we need to be vigilant to prevent such biases from occurring and to limit their impact if they do occur.

What more do you think could be done to encourage women into the fields of science, technology, engineering and maths?
I think we want to encourage everyone to be in STEM fields.  For a variety of reasons, some women who could make incredible contributions to STEM fields either never begin working in STEM, or drop out before they might otherwise.  It is this area that I think we need more effort.  We need to figure out why they do not join and/or drop out early.  And if there are things we can fix in policies and practices in STEM that would limit this, and improve recruitment or retention of skilled women in STEM we should work to fix them.

Which women inspired your scientific career and why?
My mother Laura P. Eisen inspired me because she not only worked (and still does work) in science but she dedicated much of her career towards teaching and encouraging women and underrepresented groups to get into and stay in science.

Jo Handelsman inspired me because of her efforts to support women in STEM and to study possible implicit biases that affect them.

My undergraduate advisor Colleen Cavanaugh inspired me because she is brilliant and worked in a field where there were many who were not overly supportive of women.

Jennifer Doudna inspired me because I took a course from her when she was a PhD student and it got me interested in molecular evolution.

Sharon Long inspired me when I was a PhD student at Stanford.  I did a rotation in her lab and learned more from it than from almost anything else I did.

Claire Fraser inspired me as president of TIGR (The Insitute for Genomic Research) where I worked for eight years.

My wife Maria-Ines Benito (Stanford PhD) inspired me for her incredible patience and work ethic in finishing projects.

Katherine Pollard, at UCSF, inspires me every time I work with her because she is simply brilliant and wonderful and organized and, well, inspiring.

Jessica Green at University of Oregon inspires me because she has moved from nuclear engineering to microbial ecology and now to building science. And she is brilliant and creative and fun.

Nancy Moran inspired me with her brilliant work on microbial symbioses – collaborating with her changed my career.

And many more.

I note – I have been inspired by many men as well from Richard Lenski to Phil Hanawalt to Sean Eddy to my father Howard Eisen and my grandfather Benjamin Post.  I could write a lot about all of them (and have in other places).  So I am an equal opportunity inspiree.

What words of encouragement do you have for any women wishing to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and maths?
Find your passion and do it.  Work in STEM fields can be wonderful and there are many ways to contribute. And if you run into biases (explicit or implicit), know that there are people out here who sympathize and are working to end such biases.


Jonathan Eisen is Full Professor, University of California, Davis (Depts. of ‘Medical Microbiology and Immunology’ and ‘Evolution and Ecology)’ and Adjunct Scientist DOE Joint Genome Institute. Recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Award for Open Science, 2011. Chair of the Advisory Board for PLoS Biology and Elected Member of the American Academy of Microbiology.

Jonathan can be reached on:
Twitter: @phylogenomics
blog: http://phylogenomics.blogspot.com
web site: http://phylogenomics.wordpress.com

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