07 March 2024

Dr Kimberley Bennett: We’ve come far, but the fight for gender equality goes on

Abertay academic reflects on the strides made by women ahead of International Women's Day

Dr Kimberley Bennett is a senior lecturer in the School of Applied Sciences and her research focuses on how animals and plants deal with environmental challenges. To commemorate International Women's Day, she has written an article highlighting the strides yet to be made in addressing the challenges women encounter in STEM and the workplace.

International Women’s Day is a global celebration of progress in advancing gender equality. It also provides a platform for highlighting ongoing discrimination still faced by millions of women. It’s a time to reflect on and find ways to support women who are currently disadvantaged and oppressed; women who lack access to basic education; safe places to live or food to eat; women in imminent danger from gender-based violence, war or climate-change induced famine. Although significant strides have been made in advancing women's rights, this progress is fragile. Instances of regression, seen in countries governed by far-right, populist, or extremist regimes, underscore how precarious these advancements are and highlight the ongoing struggle to safeguard women's rights. 

Gender discrimination remains pervasive in the UK workplace, as elsewhere, impeding women’s recognition, promotion and retention. Science, Technology and Maths (STEM) in particular still has a long way to go towards gender equality: since 2000 less than 15% of Nobel laureates in Physics, Chemistry and Medicine have been women. Katalin Karikó, the 2023 Nobel laureate for Medine for her work on mRNA vaccines,  highlighted the resilience and persistence she had to exhibit just be able to continue the work she was so passionate about and that has ultimately been of immeasurable value for the human race. It’s the opportunity and support that is lacking, not talent, motivation and competence.  

There have been moments in my career when I’ve thought: "where are the other women?" Shortly after my PhD I was a field assistant in the sub-Antarctic. I was the only woman in the team (albeit I still made up 25%), and on the boat that got us there. The boat crew assumed I would not survive the cold, so they plied me with cakes and chocolate. My male colleagues got no such sympathy or extra rations (although I did share!). I survived the cold – and the penguins, and the skuas stealing my glasses, and the curious fur seals, and the massive elephant seals, and the endless greasy chips in the ship’s canteen – just fine.

Since then, I have seen more overt gender discrimination: female colleagues being discarded in favour of their male counterparts, not because of competency but because they ‘might’ get married and have children (how inconvenient! How lacking drive and focus!), and experienced undermining insinuations that I only got a job because I was a woman and nothing to do with being the best candidate.  

Photo credit: Kelly Robinson

I'm fortunate to be employed in a workplace that prioritises gender equality. At Abertay, our senior leadership team is predominantly female, and we are committed to the ATHENA SWAN programme, currently holding the Bronze Award. I’m also proud to be part of our unique Lead Voice initiative in which volunteers represent the staff community in relation to protected characteristics, ensuring diverse voices are heard and ensuring that everyone plays a significant role in shaping the future of the University.  

But it’s not just about employers. It takes the whole community step up to make the culture more equitable. This year’s theme for IWD is #InspireInclusion. So how can we make science more inclusive of women? I try to support my female students and colleagues in what feel like small ways, but I hope they make a difference – nominating them for opportunities; informing them about upcoming grants, jobs or training courses; ensuring they can attend and present at conferences by facilitating travel and accommodation for their partner to provide childcare. We can all step up to better support women in realising their full potential.  

I am surrounded by talented and inspiring women, so despite ongoing challenges, I’ll end by celebrating the achievements of the women I collaborate with and mentor. This has been a bumper year for PhD students’ success. In July, Abertay student Laura Oller Lopez graduated from her PhD exploring the structure and function of blubber in seals, and in November Lauren Arkoosh defended her PhD on using seal scats to map antimicrobial resistance in UK waters.  

This week we welcome Dr Helen Browning to Abertay’s research community as a postdoctoral fellow funded by the Daphne Jackson Trust, which supports women returning to science after a career break. This wouldn’t be possible without Abertay’s fantastic grant writer and developer, Dr Ailsa Mackenzie and our head of researcher development and research impact, Dr Alison Eliot.  

Our amazing technical team also do an incredible job day-in, day-out, including Hazel Boyle and Modern Apprentice, Abigael Lindsay. Dr Louise Milne has been central to co-developing our Advanced Methods in Biomedical Science module so we can teach molecular biology skills to the next generation of scientists. 

We need to amplify the voices and accomplishments of women, not just on International Women's Day, but every day to strive for a future where gender equality is not just a goal, but a reality. 

Find out more about Dr Bennett and her work.

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