Inequality Affects us All

The insight we brought from “I, Scientist” Conference

What makes us a scientist? Our job is a part of our identity, but not our whole essence. The “I, Scientist” 2019 Conference at Technical University of Berlin was an international meeting for scientists who talk about science—but also beyond it.

The conference booklet. © Atie Kashef.

The conference introduced issues that affect people working in science, as well as in other fields: scientists of all genders with different cultural backgrounds posed questions and discussed topics on discrimination and biases in the workplace, work-life balance, mental health in academia and career paths.

We, Atie Kashef and Amir Keyvanjoo, PhD candidates in Biomedical science and IITB members jointly wrote this essay on our first experience of this kind of conference. Learning more about career pathing initially motivated us to apply for ImmunoSensation travel grant and attend the “I, Scientist” conference. Networking with scientists from different fields and diverse genders in such an attractive city like Berlin was another motivation, Amir says. I Atie, as a mother, was also excited to meet and discuss work-family management with other parent scientists. However, at the end of the day, we both mostly learned how inequality affects our community and career paths.

Stereotypes, unconscious bias and queer in science

What comes to mind when you think about inequality?

Often, we do not perceive we are privileged. We overlook how people suffer because they are discriminated in different and subtle ways. Unconscious biases affect the output of science because the intellectual properties are biased and formed of binary opinions. The more we learn about differences the more we see the bias and inequality.

The session was a unique and precious opportunity to contemplate and communicate with outstanding scientists about these biases that influence our mental health and work. Diversity brings different thoughts, cultures and genders together and nourishes the scientific community. Listening to the impressive stories and experiences of plenary speakers who have suffered from a variety of social pressures and violence at their work places clarified how our community still lacks equity and equality. Although they were mostly selected because they ultimately succeeded in proving their talent and qualifications despite the obstacles they faced. Yet, we should think about those who haven’t thrived in such harsh working environments. We need to opt toward more inclusive policies in contrast with integration otherwise we lose those brains who can’t integrate the norms. One ironic quote by Dr. Pauline Gagnon, a physicist and science writer who overcome stereotypes biases in academia grabbed us: “I can’t even think straight”! That smart ironic sentence reminds us how the community loses alternative thinkers where we exactly need that kind of mind set to create new ideas and to solve complicated puzzles in science.

Harassment and power abuse in science

We should realize that power abuse exists in academia, threatens our mental and social health and affects the output of science. It was surprising to hear stories about managers or department heads who systematically track and harass specific members of their groups due to various discriminatory reasons. Such stories remind us that power abuse also exist inside academia.

Networking event at the “I, Scientist” conference, meeting Dr. Pauline Gagnon to discuss about her book “who cares about particle physiscs”. © Amir Kayvanjoo.

We may think that in developed countries, white male dominancy and patriarchy in society has vanished by law, but culturally we still have work to do to compensate for the long history of predominant men that still rules many societies.

One of the speakers introduced another eye-catching example of harassment installed right there in the main corridor of TU, the conference venue. A large painting on the wall picturing unclothed women in a crowded street surrounded by fully dressed men. Why should we see such a picture on the wall of a male-dominated university in Berlin? We need to empower and educate students and scholars so they know their rights and will raise their voices upon entering such situations. We also need to make sure there is an efficient system to investigate and prevent such transgressions.

Mental health in academia

Scientists spend their best professional years on a highly demanding education and career path to become managers and leaders of society. Graduate students and researchers deal with work challenges and solve riddles, which is simply a definition of doing science. Sometimes we lose the balance of work and personal life — that becomes more crucial if one is also responsible for a family. Depression and social pressures are common issues that threaten our mental health in academia.

Natalia Filvarova, a graduate student of experimental psychology and PhD researcher, presented another noticeable problem: miscommunication and imbalanced social power between primary investigators and PhD students. Her data and evidences revealed that  “I am not alone”, but what is the strategy to change this pathogenic work atmosphere? We might need to start with activism to raise awareness in academia and call for a systematic improvement.

Activism

After learning about the current challenges facing academia when it comes to equality and mental health, we took part in an activism workshop on the last evening of the conference. We took the opportunity to open up and brain storm with colleagues by posing challenges, building up campaigns and calling for change.

Afterward, we developed a petition on national discrimination that affects Iranian researchers from topics to the research materials inside and outside Iran: Politicians call it “sanctions”, but it hampers the progress and collaborative nature of science. (If you are curious to know more, please read “The Travel Ban: Are We All Affected?”)

Activism workshop at I’Scientist: participants wrote petitions on their social issues and installed them on the boards to be reviewed by other attendees. © Atie Kashef

The activism conversation was a fruitful conclusion to the conference, ending with a valuable message: get involved and raise your voice to empower intellectual resources in science with social and mental peace providing equal opportunities! “I, Scientist” conference offers a unique community for scientists to contemplate and learn more about diversity, inclusion and equity in academia. Due to the current pandemic situation, the next conference in September 2020 will be held virtual so Participants can join the program and learn from the brilliant stories, experiences, life and career paths of various scientists. We hope our experiences motivate you to get involved and improve the scientific community with awareness, mental health and active voices.


Authors: Atie Kashef and Amir Keyvanjoo


Read more about the “I, Scientist” conference in this blog article by Susanne.

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