Published 11 July 2022 by Meeri Kim

The Diversity Challenge

Closing Panel
Moderator Paul Walton, Vanessa Restrepo Schild, Donna Strickland, Aybeg Nafiz Günenç and Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede (from left to right)

The final day of the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting brought the young scientists and Nobel Laureates by boat to Mainau Island for a last event traditionally focused on the intersection of science and society. Despite heavy rains, the panel discussion on Friday 1 July titled ‘The Diversity Challenge’ sparked lively conversation about the importance of diversity for science, different types of diversity, and how those in academic positions of power can improve the participation of underrepresented groups.

Much of the discussion focused on gender diversity and the lack of equality among men and women working in academic research. For instance, a 2021 Nature Biotechnology study found that academia has a wider gender pay gap over career lifecycles relative to industry for individuals who hold science and engineering doctorate degrees.

When asked why such a larger pay gap exists in academia compared to industry, Nobel Laureate Donna Strickland responded that industry is more “like a dictatorship” that can enact change much faster.

“Academia is much more like a democracy, and democracy moves slow. They also have a huge turnover in the people who work in industry, and we have an unbelievably slow turnover,” said Strickland. “But things do change slowly [in academia].”

Breaking Barriers

Panel discussion on Mainau Island
The tent protected from rain this year on on Mainau Island

In 2018, Strickland broke barriers when she became only the third woman ever to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. Her home institution, the University of Waterloo, is one of the ten leading universities participating in the United Nations Women’s HeForShe campaign, alongside ten businesses and ten governments. The campaign aims to accelerate progress towards gender equality with concrete actions, such as boosting female student participation in STEM experiences and academic careers to build the pipeline of future female leaders in traditionally male-dominated disciplines. “I would hope that the United Nations goes on and has a White for Black [campaign] and a Colonizer for Indigenous [campaign], because we need the people with the power to help the people without the power,” she added. “And I think that’s how change can happen.” For this reason, Strickland believes that men need a seat at the table when it comes to conversations around gender diversity. Too often, she is asked to participate in panel discussions or meetings that only include women speakers.

“I fight back on that all the time. It’s not just that men have to hear what women have to say — women have to hear what men have to say. This would be true across cultures or across however we want to be diverse,” she said. “I think the more we can bring people together, the easier it will become to learn how each other think.”

Including All Gender Backgrounds

Young scientist Aybeg Nafiz Günenç of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry agreed, adding that gender identity in today’s world goes far beyond male and female.

“We talk about gender equality and gender diversity, and this also includes people from diverse gender backgrounds. This includes trans people, nonbinary, agender – people from the queer gender spectrum,” said Günenç. “In that sense, I think cross-communication is very important, and men should be in this discussion and support raising these issues.”

Another topic that came up was how diversity in its different forms may actually help produce better science. Studies have demonstrated that research papers with greater diversity — across four areas: gender, ethnicity, affiliation, and age — are associated with higher performance metrics.

Three persons waiting to ask questions during the panel discussion on Mainau
Many contributions to the discussions also from the audience

Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede, Professor at Chalmers University of Technology and scientific chair of the meeting, attributes the boost in performance to the addition of varying perspectives and approaches to a single problem. Since 2019, she has helmed a gender initiative of excellence dubbed Genie at her institution, which aims to promote greater research excellence by improving gender equality and diversity among the faculty.

“Many studies show that if we have mixed groups – mixed genders, nationalities, cultures – you do better research. You have more success,” said Wittung-Stafshede. “Problems that we are trying to solve today are very complex, so I think we need all the resources available. We need to draw from, in principle, the whole world – not just half of it, or even less than that. “

Quotas as a Solution?

Lastly, the panel spoke about a few possible solutions to the lack of diversity and inequality in academic science. Young scientists Vanessa Restrepo Schild of the University of Oxford brought up an idea that she admits is controversial: quotas. Even without quotas, she notes that women in science will be accused of getting a grant or faculty position solely because of their gender.

“Sometimes we as women are against quotas as well because we don’t want to feel that we are ‘a woman in science.’ We want to be recognized as scientists,” she said. “If we’re already faced with this stigma that we’re selected because we’re women, why not make it real? Why not ensure that we have quotas?”

Several panelists emphasised the importance of getting the people in power – for instance, vice chancellors, department heads, and Nobel Laureates — involved in the fight to increase gender and racial diversity.

“I learned something really nice during this meeting, and that was there were several Nobel Laureates saying in their discussions that if they are invited to a committee, they will only sit in that committee if there is 50% women in it,” Schild said. “That is using your position, your authority to exert change — to drive this change so we stop being in this inertia.”

The scientific programme of the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting ended with this panel discussion – but certainly not the discussion about diversity, not even in Lindau.

Meeri Kim

Meeri N. Kim, PhD works as a science writer who contributes regularly to The Washington Post, Philly Voice and Oncology Times. She writes for The Washington Post’s blog “To Your Health,” has a column for Philly Voice called “The Science of Everything” and her work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Edible Philly and LivableFuture. In 2013, Meeri received a PhD in physics from the University of Pennsylvania for her work in biomedical optics.