By Shereen Lehman

(Reuters Health) – Academic societies may be able to improve gender equity by supporting female leadership and committing to equality, suggests a new Australian study.

Organizations that are more diverse, especially in leadership positions, are often more productive and innovative, say the authors.

“Societies not only help academics to network and collaborate (sometimes across distances), but they also play a practical role in a lot of research spheres,” study leader Dominique Potvin told Reuters Health in an email.

“Academic societies,” she noted, “such as, say, The Royal Society of London, have existed for a long time and are much more integral in academic life than a lot of people think.”

Academic societies organize regular local, national and international conferences which bring scientists together to share research, said Potvin, who is a researcher at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Hervey Bay, Australia.

They also publish scientific journals, are involved in the promotion and advocacy for research and policy changes, and provide funding for research, she said.

“Thus, societies not only play a vital role for individual researchers in keeping them connected with other members of their field and through mentorship, but they also take on many responsibilities and actively support continuing scientific research and dissemination through more practical or tangible means as well,” she said.

Societies, she added, “might be an overlooked facet of scientific life that could help promote gender equality in the wider academic and scientific community.”

As reported in PLoS One, Potvin and her colleagues examined gender equality in zoology society boards that had a focus on research. They analyzed society websites to determine the number of women in leadership roles – president, vice-president, treasurer, and secretary – in 202 academic societies worldwide.

Only 30 percent of board members were women, and only about one-quarter of executive positions were held by women – but those numbers are higher than what is seen in academic institutional leadership (i.e., universities), said Potvin.

“One of the biggest things we found was that simply having a statement of inclusivity in a society’s constitution or on their websites, such as anti-discrimination policies, affirmative action or simply a statement of support for diversity and equality, was a major predictor of the number of women in the leadership of that society,” Potvin said.

“We would encourage societies at their next annual general meeting to think about including such a statement, which we think contributes to an overall culture in which women feel respected, included and valued enough to be involved in the leadership of these societies,” said Potvin.

Diversity and equality in science lead to more effective, efficient and creative outcomes due to the inclusion of varied perspectives, so the benefits that can be obtained by reaching equity and promoting diversity are tangible and positive, Potvin said.

“The paper is open access, meaning anyone can read it and can download the checklist for actions that can help your own organization in the promotion and support of gender equality,” said Potvin.

SOURCE: PLOS One, May 30, 2018