Five-in-Five Blog Series: #3 Enhancing support for women in leadership

The “Five-in-five” profile series highlights wheat research leaders delivering tangible change for women in global wheat

To mark International Women’s Day, women from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) Global Wheat Program met with inspiring women in the global wheat research community. In addition to highlighting the work of these leaders in science, breeding and strategy, these conversations identified five key areas to be addressed over the next five years.

Defining these “five-in-five” represents the first step in a movement towards a more diverse, inclusive and productive global wheat community.

In this installment of the “five-in-five” series, WHEAT scientists reflect on how high-visibility role models and advocates can provide positive examples for others to follow. Yet, women are still under-represented in leadership positions in the global wheat community. This creates a series of challenges. In particular, how can we better elevate women role models,  mainstream acceptance of women in leadership positions, and improve access to peer-to-peer support for women leaders within organizations. Almost all of the participants in our blog series highlighted the need for more women in senior positions and for better support across the global community to enable this.

Mayela Flores Romero is a molecular biologist and assistant research associate at CIMMYT. She spoke to Melania Figueroa, a plant pathologist and group leader in the Agriculture and Food Business Unit at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia.

Figueroa’s work focuses on plant-pathogen interactions and the development of long-lasting resistance in crops, including cereals. Her current work is on plant immunity; she uses genomics and molecular biology approaches to understand the emergence of new pathogenic strains of rust fungi.  As a rust researcher, she hopes to achieve sustainable crop protection through the use and deployment of available and new technologies that further our understanding of virulence evolution. She hopes that, within five years, her team can deploy new, more precise tools and resources to reduce chemical use and increase food production.  She also hopes to see more women involved in scientific leadership, highlighting the role of a supportive community in promoting women through recognition of achievements and the inclusion of more women in award nominations.

In situations where women don’t yet occupy half of the seats at the table, peer-to-peer mentoring networks for women in science can ensure that they are well supported and can share experiences with others who are pursuing similar dreams. One of Figueroa’s goals is to encourage other women to pursue careers in science, particularly those with a positive impact in agriculture. “As scientists we master many useful skills, such as decision making and strategic thinking. We must feel empowered and confident to bring those skills to leadership teams,” Figueroa said.

Philomin Juliana is a wheat quantitative geneticist at CIMMYT. She spoke to Jessica Rutkoski, an assistant professor of small grains breeding at the ‎University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Rutkoski has always had a passion for innovation. She has worked on implementing modern breeding tools like genomic selection in wheat breeding programs, and currently focuses on developing and deploying new breeding methods, in addition to applying quantitative genetics and statistical techniques to accelerate the rates of genetic gain in winter wheat. In five years, Rutkoski hopes to see a transition to a new and fresh generation of young wheat scientists. She also hopes to create a very welcoming and inclusive environment, where women scientists are free to lead and express their opinions.

Carolina Rivera, a wheat physiologist at CIMMYT discussed how to foster an attractive, creative and productive workspace with Fernanda Dreccer, a crop physiologist at CSIRO in Australia, where she is part of the Agriculture and Food Inclusion and Diversity Leadership Team and a strong advocate for gender equality in science.

Fernanda’s work focuses on delivering wheat germplasm and developing for increased yield potential and crop adaptation to abiotic stresses, particularly heat and drought. In order to promote gender equality and social inclusion in science, she would like to see continued policy change across the board addressing key problems: the gender pay gap, the lack of women in leadership positions and the need for better support for parents. It is essential for companies to provide access to affordable childcare, flexible work arrangements and other inclusive practices that would allow parents to fulfill caring commitments without penalties on job quality and security, or career advancement.

In five years Dreccer hopes to see progress on the less visible part of the problem as well, including a shake up of existing models of leadership in the research and innovation sector, which are still based on strong hierarchical and competitive dynamics that reward individuals and not teams. She said these systems are unlikely to attract or select the leaders of the future, where domain competence, creativity, curiosity and empathy will be more relevant assets.

“I am sure that from an institutional perspective it makes a lot of sense to implement inclusive practices, not only in terms of fairness but also in terms of business-like efficiency. Suddenly, all that collective energy spent in dealing with difficult workplaces could be unleashed into time invested in creative science,” she said.

Stay tuned for more profiles and conversations all this week as part of this five-in-five series.


Diversity, five-in-five, IWD2021, women in agriculture, women in science

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