What it is like to be a women-only scientific group?

We had never given it much thought, but when the world was recently celebrating International Women in Science Day, it hit us. The Cetacean Ecology Research Group at Massey University in New Zealand, where we are a research associate and a PhD student, currently consists purely of women. We are led by the great Prof Karen Stockin. Then there are three research associates, a postdoc and research officer, two PhD students, and two MSc students. While we come from different countries (New Zealand, UK, Australia, Germany, New Caledonia), we are all women. So, what is it like to work in a women-only scientific group? Are there benefits?

Sexism in science

One of the reasons we are celebrating Women in Science Day is that there still exists a stigma against women in science. This, coupled with some people’s opinion that research concerning marine mammals is ‘soft science,’ means we are extra aware of how we present our research at conferences, how we talk to the media, and how we phrase grant applications. Working in an all-women team means that we don’t have to explain this to each other; we know this.

Prof. Stockin’s team at the World Marine Mammal conference in Barcelona, December 2019 ] Credit: CERG-Massey Uni

Over the last few years, reports of bullying and sexual harassment (#MeToo) have become more frequent in many lines of work, including academia. While, at least as far as we know, sexual harassment by women is much less common than by men, this doesn’t mean it never happens. However, we think it’s possible that some women potentially feel safer working in an all-women group, especially if they have come into contact with harassment by male colleagues or superiors before.

Empathy and leadership

In our group, we feel that we can have dynamic discussions without worrying about how our opinion might be perceived. There is much active collaboration among group members and a lot of empathy rather than competitiveness. But is this because we are women? We think one of the most important roles of a group leader is to create an environment where people are not afraid to voice their ideas and concerns, where they are not worried about being put down. Science and academia are already extremely competitive, and your research group should be a space of encouragement and empowerment. However, these are not explicitly female qualities; any great leader should strive to attain these qualities.

The team preparing for a necropsy – Credit: CERG-Massey Uni

But we also believe in the benefit of gender balance (and if not full balance, at least some level of gender diversity) in a group. We think men and women can differ in their strengths and approaches and can complement each other. Therefore having a balanced group can increase the diversity of the group’s skill set. And mental capacities aside, when we have to move a 300 kg dead dolphin from the truck into the freezer, it just helps to have some male muscle around!

It all just comes down to good leadership

So, is working in an all-women group better? We think the things we like about our group come down to the personalities of the members. We are young scientists who feel supported by our group leader and each other. This enables us to be productive, confident, and have fun at work. In the end, it’s about the personalities of the people we work with. Find people who you can trust and that want to nurture your professional development. These are the right people for you.

The team is on duty, helping with marine mammal strandings – Credit: CERG-Massey Un

Thank you for reading! Do you want to know what it is like to be a whale scientist? Check out our other posts:

Being a whale scientist – 4 misconceptions
Katharina Peters
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Katharina J. Peters is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury, New Zeland, and a research associate at Massey University, New Zealand and the University of Zurich, Switzerland. Her research interests lie at the interface of animal behavior, population ecology and evolutionary biology and how to apply this information to better manage the conservation of wild populations and their associated environments. Her current projects focus on population dynamics of Weddell seals in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, reproductive success on bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia, and on the foraging ecology and distribution of odontocetes in New Zealand waters.

Rebecca Boys
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Rebecca M. Boys is a PhD student in the Cetacean Ecology Research Group at Massey University, Auckland, New Zealand. Her research investigates the application of welfare science to cetacean strandings to help inform decision-making. Her previous research at the Institute of Marine Science in the Azores (IMAR and MARE) included applying mark-recapture models to estimate demographic parameters of cetacean populations.

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