A coffee with the founding mothers of the Women in Crop Science initiative

They say you can’t be what you can’t see, so meet the women showing that you can make it in Crop Science.

Is Agriculture still a Man’s world? According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), women currently represent more than 40% of the farming work force. However, despite their important contributions to the agricultural sector worldwide, gender gaps still exist in land ownership, salaries, or availability of credit.

Whether women work in a field or in a lab, another important issue is limited access to education and training as well as research & innovation programs. In the European Union (SHE FIGURES 2021), it is estimated that genders are balanced among doctoral graduates in Agriculture-related studies, but the percentage of female scientists decreases as the seniority level increases. This trend relates to a smaller representation of women in leadership and decision-making positions.

To know more about the reality of women in crop research, this month Botany One met Dr. Laura Dixon, Lecturer in Plant Science at the University of Leeds (UK) and UK Research & Innovation (UKRI) Future Leader Fellow. Besides her brilliant investigation on the regulation of plant development in response to environmental stimuli in cereals, Laura is also a founding member of the Women in Crop Science (WiCS) initiative, together with female colleagues working at Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo (CIMMYT) in Mexico and The National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) in the UK* (more information below).

Let’s talk about the initiative “Women in Crop Science”: How did this idea become a reality?

We had noticed that even though there are quite a number of female crop scientists, their representation on projects, in meetings and at conferences was minimal. We had been talking about the idea of creating a group of female researchers working in crop science and we discussed the possibility of developing a resource to facilitate greater inclusion.

To do this, Alison Bentley (CIMMYT) galvanised Stéphanie Swarbreck (NIAB) and myself (Laura Dixon, University of Leeds) to form an initial group with the aim of developing a directory. We promoted this initiative to our networks, quickly reaching a hundred members. Using Twitter, we have been highlighting the profile of specific entries such as the 100th woman to join.

Afterwards, Alison was able to bring on board Julie Van Vlasselaer to help coordinate WiCS activities, and to include Nele Verhulst (CIMMYT) who had been co-leading tasks at her own research centre to make progress on gender diversity and to support female crop scientists.

Four photos of women in artistic black and white.
Figure 1. Pictures of the founding mothers of WiCS. From left to right: Dr. Alison Bentley (Program Director Global Wheat Program at CIMMYT), Dr. Stéphanie Swarbreck(Plant scientist at NIAB), Laura Dixon (Lecturer in Plant Sciences at the University of Leeds) and Dr. Nele Verhulst(Cropping Systems Agronomist at CIMMYT).

Can you give us an overview of this initiative?

The first goal of the WiCS Team was to create a Directory and to put together a database of female crop expertise. To date, the directory holds 356 members from 47 countries working on 38 different crops – from the most cultivated cereals worldwide (e.g., maize, rice, wheat, barley) to cotton or sunflower (examples of plants of agronomic interest studied by WiCS are reported in Figure 2).

A grid of twelve photos, usually with the raw crop next to a bowl of the prepared food stuff.
Figure 2. Images of important food crops studied by WiCS. Top:maize, rice, wheat, barley. Middle:  potato, sweet potato, tomato, quinoa. Bottom: coffee, cacao, legumes, fresh vegetables. Credits, MO (Canva photo collage).

The directory has four specific objectives: 1) help to identify speakers for meetings and scientific panels, 2) create an online community and forum for raising questions and sharing information, 3) unite peer support for people with caring responsibilities, and 4) give access to a pool of mentors across different career levels. All women active in the field of Crop Science worldwide can join by filling in a short online questionnaire. By building a strong network of female scientists, we hope to ensure greater inclusion in the future. We would also like to use this directory to share interesting job opportunities and to encourage more women to apply for current vacancies.

As we needed a platform to host the directory, we then created  https://womenincropscience.org/. This dedicated website is also used to share interviews with leading women in the field of crop sciences, to publish reports from the WiCS community, to share links to interesting articles and to organize meetings around the world.

What are the main activities that you have successfully carried out?

In parallel with “digital activities”, Alison had initiated hosting coffee mornings at conferences, which we have already been included in the meeting of the MonoGram network (i.e., UK based researchers working on graminaceous species) in 2022. Coffee mornings were hugely successful and the importance of physically meeting as a community was clear, at conferences but also at a local level. Developing a local support network was missing in lots of institutes and so we combined the ideas and started a global to local coffee morning.

From the 5th to the 9th of September 2022, we organized our first “Women in Crop Science coffee morning” around the world. Hosts from 23 different research institutions organized an event in their local area, from the UK to Pakistan and Australia (Posters in Figure 3).

Four posters for Women in Crop Science coffee mornings. A pastel rainbow shines into a brown coffee cup. In the cup is an ear of maize, some wheat, barley, rice and other crops.
Figure 3. Posters of the Global WiCS Coffee initiative held at the beginning of September 2022.

We plan to repeat this initiative every 6 months, so save the date for our next “Global Coffee Morning” during the week of 20-24th March 2023! In the meantime, we encourage research organizations and universities to schedule this kind of events more frequently within their own capacity. To support women who want to organize these activities in their workplace, we have drafted a guide on how to hold a WiCS coffee morning.

What new activities are you planning to carry out?

We have recently initiated the interview seriesWomen in Crop Science Conversations” to provide insight into the lives and work of women who inspire us in the global crop science community. The first conversation we did was with Sylvie Cloutier from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. Many more interviews with fascinating women in crop science will be published in the coming months! So, stay tuned!

Besides that, we are planning to offer different training courses to our community such as, for example, “Building your online presence” and “How to achieve work-life balance”.

What are the expected results of the WiCS initiative?

We are already providing a global resource that can be useful not only to connect female scientists but also to find invited speakers for conference or potential collaborators for research projects. Interestingly, our network currently includes female researchers as well as plant breeders and policy makers from almost 50 countries worldwide.

In the long-term, we will keep growing the network and maintaining its online base. Also, we will develop new resources – including training materials, podcasts, and announcements of future events for building your own network (e.g., through the coffee morning initiative).

“We hope that the Women in Crop Science network will really start to address the gender imbalance in the crop science community and enable a more inclusive future for all”, concluded Laura Dixon.

If you would like to be part of this network, you can register at https://womenincropscience.org/. If you would like to receive more information about WiCS activities, contact womenincropscience@gmail.com.

SUGGESTED READING:

Women in agriculture | Reduce Rural Poverty | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (fao.org)

The gender gap in land rights (fao.org)

The barriers women face in agriculture (nationalgeographic.com)

Women in Agriculture: The Agents of Change for the Global Food System (worldbank.org)

She Figures 2021 (europa.eu)

*To know more about research centres dedicated to crop science:

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is a non-profit organization located in Mexico and devoted to the improvement of maize and wheat varieties to increase food security. CIMMYT is also involved in the innovation of agricultural practices aimed at boosting plant production, preventing crop disease and improving smallholder farmers’ livelihoods.

CIMMYT is one of the 15 CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) research-for-development centers, which research aims to reduce rural poverty, to increase food security, to improve human health and nutrition, and to improve sustainable management of natural resources. NIAB (The National Institute of Agricultural Botany) is a plant science research company based in Cambridge, UK

Michela Osnato

Plant Molecular Biologist passionate about Science Communication and Education.
Science Editor @ Botany One

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