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Here’s one way to help women in science: Support international collaborations


Today, during the March for Science, it’s useful to note that women in academia don’t have as many chances to collaborate across national borders as men do. And that hurts both individual women and academic knowledge. Let me explain.

Science is international

This week’s March for Science on Earth Day is also drawing attention to the importance of international collaboration for scientific advancement. The organizers are calling people to “defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments.” These protests are expected in hundreds of cities worldwide, showing that science and academia cannot be confined within national borders. The very production of academic and scientific knowledge is global. Science is based on needs and thrives on international collaboration.

Much cutting-edge research in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields occurs in international groups of scientists. International research collaboration is considered necessary to tackle some of science’s biggest questions, such as the Human Genome Project or basic questions in particle physics at CERN.

U.S. researchers don’t collaborate internationally as much as many Europeans do. Even so, one-third of all journal articles published by U.S. science and engineering researchers are co-authored with international collaborators. Internationally co-authored articles tend to be placed in higher-impact journals and receive more citations. But while 33 percent of male doctoral recipients in academic positions report having participated in international collaborations, only 23.5 percent of women report having done so.

That’s true not just in the United States but internationally as well. According to a just-released comparative study of 12 countries and regions, women co-author less with international colleagues than men do. Most strikingly, even as international co-authorship has increased since the 1990s, a gender gap in that cross-national collaboration persists — despite the fact that there are only small gender differences in rates of collaboration overall.


Glass fences make bad neighbors

In my new book “Women in Global Science,” I coin the term “glass fences” to talk about what keeps women from participating globally as much as men do. Glass fences are the gendered obstacles women face as they attempt to conduct international research. These are as invisible as the glass ceilings encountered by female managers, academics and politicians when they try to climb the hierarchical ladders of their organizations. But glass fences nevertheless demarcate — and block — the borders women must cross to participate in international collaborations.

So what exactly are these barriers?

The first two structural barriers come from the very way that women are located in the academic hierarchies today.

First, because international collaborations are often resource-intensive, both men and women find it challenging to locate suitable collaborators, funding and time. But women already start from behind when looking for such international opportunities. That’s because women in academia are less likely to have positions at better-funded, research-focused colleges and universities. As a result, they tend to have less access to international opportunities.

Second, building international networks and finding funding takes a certain amount of job security. Because women are more often in precarious and/or nontenured positions than are men, they are less likely to have the security to reach out across borders.

A third issue is organizational. When universities and funding agencies do design supports for international collaboration, they are often thinking of a hyper-flexible, elite academic entrepreneur, a model that is often less compatible with many women’s professional and personal lives. Family responsibilities, for instance, can make international travel and mobility more difficult, and women are more likely to bear the brunt of family responsibilities.

Month-long expeditions on Antarctic research vessels obviously will not be feasible for those primarily responsible for young children, for instance. But even international research institutions often do not accommodate families, assuming that academics will travel alone for months at a time — which presumes that someone else will be at home with whoever needs daily care.

When global businesses post executive managers on international assignments, they entice them with comprehensive support systems, including packages for children’s school fees and tuition. By contrast, most academics are expected to pay any family expenses themselves. U.S. academic institutions provide few financial or other supports for academics who engage in international travel. And yet such mobility is crucial, particularly in the post-doc phase, to building international networks and collaborations. When women with primary caregiving responsibilities get screened out of such opportunities, the leaky pipeline then gets leakier.

Family is not an issue for only women, and some women find innovative ways to manage work-family conflict when work takes them abroad. My colleagues Laura Visser and Katrina Uhly and I found that a supportive and/or “portable” partner can mitigate the challenges of international collaboration. Some parents actually find that family commitments motivate them to work abroad, because they value exposing their children to different languages or cultures. And for some academics, doing research abroad allows them to spend time with their families in their home countries, as about one-third of U.S. faculty in STEM fields are foreign born.

Fourth, some U.S. women are concerned about sexual harassment abroad. Women faculty have developed strategies to avoid harassment such as bringing graduate students, postdoctoral fellows or their partners and spouses with them on international research stays. Their hope is by building strength in numbers to elude potentially uncomfortable one-on-one encounters with local contacts or collaborators, especially in potentially awkward social situations.

None of these fences is permanent; with effort and attention, each can be removed.

Thus, given how important international collaborations can be for scientific advancement and academic careers in many STEM fields, in my book I argue further that there are many benefits for women to engage in international collaboration — including allowing women to circumvent potentially exclusionary networks at home and experience enriching collaborations abroad.

Senior women faculty sometimes find that their reputation and status among colleagues is higher outside than inside their institutions, especially within their own departments. Therefore, removing glass fences — and thus allowing women to move horizontally across borders — can help women faculty rise vertically, evading glass ceilings.

Gender equity in international collaboration won’t fix gendered inequalities in academia alone. But support for international collaborations could help women climb over the glass fences and potentially move up in STEM fields, helping to develop a more inclusive academic world. We need such an inclusive, international world of science to solve the urgent problems our globe is facing.

Kathrin Zippel is associate professor of sociology at Northeastern University and the author of Women in Global Science: Advancing Academic Careers through International Collaboration (Stanford University Press, 2017).