Chairing: Not as Easy as it Looks

If you are setting out on your career, how do you acquire leadership skills? If you think you’re a born leader how can you check it out or improve? As part of the commemorations around the 50th anniversary death of Sir Winston Churchill (Churchill2015) various organisations have been considering different aspects of leadership. The Moller Centre at Churchill College has developed a course for new generation leaders (described here in the Financial Times with accompanying video) to help those setting out gain the necessary skills. One aspect of leadership is of course the ability to chair meetings and keep committees working effectively.

Having recently taken on a new chairing responsibility, in a new sphere, I am mindful of the challenges such a role entails. Every committee is different and young leaders have to learn that the way one approaches the task has to suit the specific group of people sitting round the table, whilst keeping one’s goals clearly in mind. New committees bring new dynamics. Get it wrong at the beginning and it may be much harder to be effective in the long run: the chair bears a special responsibility from the start of the very first meeting to get the committee to ‘gel’. Any subsequent change of membership may perturb – for good or ill – the complex web of interactions between those round the table. Even with the best of care and attention things can go pear-shaped at any point (and of course one should not forget the adage that if things can go wrong they will).

I have two cardinal rules for chairing, regardless of the committee: make sure appropriate introductions are made at the start of meetings and allow time for comfort breaks. I know plenty of other chairs who dispense with such niceties. I have sat through meeting after meeting of some committees still in a fog about who some members are, even why they’re there if they never open their mouths. This cannot make for the most useful debate. But in particular, when a new committee meets for the first time, surely it only makes sense to take a few minutes to allow for introductions. This is even more important for committees external to any particular institution, where people may be brought together from many different organisations.

When I first took on chairing a major committee I took advice from a more experienced chair to help me acquire some basics. She gave me some very valuable hints. First, do a quick sketch of who is sitting where so you don’t forget people’s names. A useful tactic, particularly if dealing with a group who meet only rarely and there are no name tags of any sort in use; the more people in the room the more important it is. Nevertheless there is one accompanying pitfall into which I have fallen with great embarrassment. It’s to do with people whose first and second names could both be first names (e.g. James Francis or Leslie Thomas – I’m not sure it’s so likely to happen with women’s names). In a flurry at the start of a meeting I once miscalled someone by their second name not their first. As I hate the fact that people are sometimes startled to find me a woman whose second name is Donald not a man whose second name is Athene I should be very sensitive to this, but I still fell into the trap when swiftly glancing down at my list of names and pulling out the wrong half. Very red-faced I was.

The second piece of advice I was given was about how a chair should act: listen to all the arguments and be alert to when it is time to draw them together and come to a conclusion. This isn’t equivalent to knowing what you want to get out of a meeting and then making sure others reach the same conclusion, a piece of advice that some might also think was useful. As far as I know I’ve rarely used that as a tactic, not least because it really doesn’t apply if chairing something like a grant-giving body: one could never go into such a meeting knowing exactly which grants you wanted to succeed – and make that happen. Even if you could do that you shouldn’t!

However, the advice is more subtle than you might think. It means both that you shouldn’t cut people off before they’ve all had their opportunity to speak and also that you shouldn’t let the usual suspects rabbit on too long simply repeating themselves. The art is to step in once the circle has been completed once and not wait for multiple circuits. A bad chair can fail to interrupt that repeated circular path and progress will never be made. Equally, a bad chair can stop debate before any sort of consensus has been reached, in which case some committee members will simply feel a decision has been imposed, leaving lasting resentment.

If a chair allows a discussion to go on… and on….and on…the meeting will overrun. People will get cross and indubitably a good decision will not be made. Indeed, often in that situation people start leaving before any conclusion/vote has been reached and so it is those who are prepared to stick it out who get the last word.

So, some personal advice for anyone about to take on chairing for the first time:

  • Do your homework, read the paperwork and think about where the sticking points are likely to arise;
  • If necessary and appropriate (and it often may not be) talk to people in advance if you know that they hold strong but opposing views;
  • Know who everyone is and what their backgrounds are; remember names;
  • Concentrate so that you know when to wind up a particular discussion point;
  • Take the time necessary to reach a consensus, or at least let those whose views are being over-ridden feel that they have been heard;
  • Try to ensure anyone who wants to speak gets their chance – in particular do not let a couple of vociferous and possibly arrogant people dominate. It is the chair’s job to see this does not happen and that the timid get their moment;
  • Do not let tempers flare and use humour if you can to keep the meeting light (self-deprecating humour is fine and is often described as typically British);
  • Use breaks as time-outs if necessary, but also to allow legs to stretch, comfort to be restored and caffeine and sugar levels to be banked up as desired.

Other points may depend on the nature of the committee. I know I have tended to avoid votes – they can seem like an admission of defeat although sometimes good governance absolutely requires them. But I once went so far, in a fellowship committee, to have a straw poll when we were down to the last position to give out. Although the debate had seemed even-handed between three candidates, when asked to give their first choice there was a near-unanimous decision which the debate (undoubtedly a case of going round in circles) had masked as everyone was being so scrupulously fair to all. Nevertheless, when push came to shove and they had to name their top candidate, the answer for everyone was essentially obvious.

My final piece of advice for a happy committee: keep to the allotted time – never overrun!







Posted in Science Culture | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

What Does Equality Mean?

­­As the additions to my last post indicate, the University of York has backtracked on celebrating International Men’s Day – a celebration that would have taken place today. So now one part of the university is annoyed that anyone ever considered celebrating the day and, by virtue of what was written in the original statement, apparently trivialising the problems women face; another part are equally annoyed that the day is no longer being celebrated claiming that this implies the university doesn’t consider men’s rights are important. This is turning into a hopelessly polarised debate which won’t do anyone any good and certainly won’t make gender equality any nearer. It is all really rather tragic.

I was surprised to see the sentence in the original statement that read

‘In academic staff appointments, the data suggests that female candidates have a higher chance of being appointed than men.’

However, the University of York pointed me to their own data for 2008-11 which shows this statement to be true. However, I do not think those data are enough to convince me that York has solved the prevalent problems of bias against women and have reached a state where now men are being discriminated against, which is of course how the sentence above can be, and has been, read. One has to be very careful about interpretation of aggregated statistics and in my own experience when faced with such data I usually end up wanting to ask more and more questions in order to drill down beneath grand totals to work out what’s really going on.

So, what are the issues that are likely to make the situation complex and hard to unravel? Firstly, aggregating statistics from all grades within a classification (academic, research, support and teaching are the 4 groups that York consider) can mask all kinds of issues. To give a specific example: if, in support staff, the women are clustered in the lower grade positions – such as would have been called clerical in days gone by – there will be many such positions and few men are likely to apply for secretarial posts (why that should be of course could be another debate). So it is likely that many women will be appointed and the success rate may be expected to be quite high. At the upper end of the group, the senior management posts, there are far fewer posts and so, by weight of numbers their contribution to the statistics will be small. I suspect there will also be more people chasing the few posts and I would hazard a guess that there is a preponderance of men applying for those grades – but of course I don’t know that for sure. If these suppositions are correct, the net effect will be women are more successful than men overall. But we can’t actually deduce any of that with certainty from the gross statistics. And attempting to disaggregate them will cause its own problems whenever numbers are small, due to the effect of fluctuations. ‘Under-representation of men’ may be a literally true statement in support posts, as the York website initially declared, but what does it really mean? I suspect it means gender segregation by grade not unfairness in the way it is presented.

There may be similar arguments about each grouping. You can ask further questions too. If women are being appointed to academic positions with a higher success rate than men, does this reflect bias against men? It is easy to start with the null hypothesis that the merits of men and women are equally distributed so that success rates should be identical. But if in fact, as I have heard Ottoline Leyser put it, men are afraid of getting out of academia and women afraid of staying in (her words written up in slightly less stark terms here) then that strong selection process could mean that men and women applying for permanent academic posts may not in fact be statistically equivalent: the women who stick it out may indeed be ‘better’. So, if you decide equal success rates are a sine qua non for appointments panels you will actually be discriminating against women. Again, I don’t know that this applies. A presumption of superiority but in reverse is of course what has been going on for decades and what so many actions are trying to reverse.

As I wrote several years ago:

So, we should be asking ourselves, not only ‘are we nearly there?’, but where is the ‘there’ we are trying to reach. Is the ideal a 50:50 split between the genders at all levels and for all subjects, or do we believe that this is a) impossible or b) undesirable – or even c) irrelevant as a metric.

This whole area is unbelievably complex, even if one only considers appointments. If one looks at progression we need a different set of statistics: are men and women equally likely to be promoted and, if so, are they equally likely to be promoted at comparable career points? If not, why not? I recall looking at Cambridge data about academic promotion some years ago and all I could do was point out how raw numbers cannot tell anything like the complete story. We needed to know for each applicant how often they had applied previously, what were the gaps between successive applications, had individuals had career breaks….and so on. Of course we didn’t have that data. So, any university making statements about men and women’s careers, success rates and – by extrapolation – need for support, needs to be incredibly careful about nuance and detail. Otherwise their statements will be misinterpreted and used against them.

However, to come back to what I imagine York really wanted to do, whether men or women are more disadvantaged should not be the question. Undoubtedly men need support. They need to be encouraged to speak about their feelings before they are overwhelmed. A world in which so many young men choose to commit suicide rather than admit to depression or feelings of inadequacy in case it’s perceived as a sign of weakness, is a world which has much work to do. I believe this should have been at least part of the goal of the University of York’s intended celebrations for International Men’s Day. Making it permissible for men not to fit an alpha male stereotype is a hugely important objective; not just in the context of mental health, but about career aspirations (it’s OK not to want to run the biggest empire in the universe), parenting and work-life balance more generally. That last phrase needs to be as accessible to men as to women and it should not be regarded as equivalent to ‘not being serious about your career’ for either. Equality and diversity is about valuing difference and making sure the workplace is comfortable for all and with equality of opportunity for all. Equality of outcome is a different matter but the easiest metric to measure. As in so much of academia, we need to be careful about being lazy in our use of metrics.

Above all, we should not see men as in opposition to women. We can celebrate both. We can – and must – value both. The University of York now has a major task in healing the wounds careless words caused. But, and as I said before, they have been trailblazers on the Athena Swan front and I hope they will soon be trailblazing again on gender equality after this unfortunate fall from grace. But please, let us not end up polarised into hating, and explicitly expressing that hate, those who are different.


Posted in Equality | Tagged | 1 Comment

Supporting Men, Supporting Women: We Need to do Both

I am not infrequently challenged about why I worry so much about women in academia when young men are being disadvantaged. This is seen to be particularly true in school exam results but also if one looks at the numbers of men entering certain university courses (Veterinary Sciences, Psychology, English…). Woman’s Hour ran a story on this very issue just last week. All is not perfect for boys and men, I have no doubt of that, Nevertheless for many of those women who do try to climb the academic ladder pernicious issues remain, all too often buried beneath the surface. This means the playing field frequently remains tilted very much against them. Think Geoff Marcy, who seems to have got away with harassment for far too long, as an extreme example: just because some boys/men are disadvantaged does not mean women are always getting more than their fair share or even being treated in a halfway decent fashion.

Despite this, I am firmly of the belief that we will not get true equality by thinking only about the issues facing women. Men who want to do their full share of parenting, who don’t want to globetrot simply to tick off conference invitations to put on their CVs or who prefer an understated way of running their research teams rather than bragging about them, need support just as much as the women. For that reason it makes sense to celebrate International Men’s Day (November 19th) in academia as elsewhere. Changing our society cannot be done by one part simply slagging off the other. We are definitely all in this together.

However…however, I do not believe that it is particularly helpful to see on a university’s Equality and Diversity site  a statement for International Men’s Day saying

‘In academic staff appointments, the data suggests that female candidates have a higher chance of being appointed than men.’

Is this data from their own university? Or what is that statement based on, which most academics I suspect would have a hard time reconciling with their own local experience? We know that the proportion of women in academic positions remains, overall, a rather small proportion of the total: at professorial level it is still less than a quarter. Has the University of York, the university in question, somehow managed to turn things around at appointment level so radically that women really do have an easier time of it? Or is, as I suspect, that statement simply based on the misreporting of the recent Ceci and Williams study which was interpreted by some as saying women were twice as likely to be appointed as men. There were many articles written debunking the study and the way it was presented in the mainstream media (see my own write up here). Sure, many people would like to believe that the particular nut that is bias in faculty appointment has been cracked, but the study was not based on real examples (fictitious CVs were used) and I am not aware of any institution which actually has reached such a point.

I understand that a number of academics at York have been upset by this bald statement appearing under the banner of Equality and Diversity on their university website. I am not surprised. York has been seen by many as a trailblazer in gender issues, ever since their Chemistry Department was awarded the first ever Athena Swan Gold award under the leadership of then head of department Paul Walton, a man who has gone on to talk tirelessly about the issues and what can be done to move towards gender equality. To put up a statement that looks unsupported and which appears to trivialise the problems many women continue to face does not seem helpful.

Other parts of York’s statements around International Men’s Day refer to the imbalance in the undergraduate population and the fact that some categories of staff (professional support services and departmental support staff are mentioned) have a significant under-representation of men. I know that this latter concern has been expressed to me by a (male) member of my own university – although here it is clear that at the highest grade men still significantly outnumber women in academic-related posts. Nevertheless, it is possible there is a cause for concern at the lower grades and I hope it is being investigated. I have not seen figures detailing average success rates for men and women in these grades. It is appointment (and promotion) success rates that matter now, since historical imbalances will take a while to work through the system.

There is of course a deeper philosophical question about what the numbers ‘should’ be. Just as I get taken to task when people assume I’m advocating that undergraduate physics classes should be exactly 50:50 men and women – something I’ve never said – so we probably should query what does under-representation of men in professional services mean. There could be all kinds of reason why men apply in lower numbers than women. However, if success rates are significantly different between the genders then I am more worried that we have a problem; I simply don’t know whether that is so or not. Someone, somewhere, Must have that data (and not just the percentages in the different grades which is all I am familiar with).

There is no doubt that we are in an era when we are still working out the right questions to ask, a vital step if we are to find sensible solutions to gender equality. But I am uncomfortable with any E+D group that paints too rosy a picture when women on the ground know that so many problems remain. Let’s see the evidence for York to reassure women (and men) that the statement on their website is accurate for their own university, or let’s see that statement removed and replaced with something more accurately reflecting the academic world today. By all means let us consider what steps can be taken to improve the lot of working men and identify where they are disadvantaged by virtue of their gender. But this should not be done at the expense of women. This should not be seen as a zero sum game but a process by which everyone’s working environment can be improved and by which you are appointed on merit, not because of your chromosomes.

The statements on the University of York website were brought to my attention by Jenny Saul who has written about her own thoughts on the matter here.

Update 16-11-15 0815 I understand that the statement does indeed refer to the University of York’s own aggregated data which can be found here.  I also understand that further thought is being given to the statement which may be modified (or possibly even removed). Certainly I believe that the wording made the fact that there was evidence from their own institution to support their statement completely unclear. The fact that many people read it as essentially trivialising the challenges women face without even realising the basis for the remark, shows that the wording was, at the very least, unfortunate. If I hear more I will continue to update this post.

Finally, I have not had time to examine the statistics provided but I am sure they will provide food for thought. Another commenter drew my attention to some US data which is also relevant. Considered thoughts will have to wait for a further post. I think it reinforces my closing statement that we are still working out what the right questions to ask are.

Update 16-11-1130 The statement on the E+D website has now been removed and replaced with the following:

‘The following is a response to an open letter sent to the University regarding an article published advising of our intention to mark International Men’s Day (19 November).

We are sorry that this has caused unhappiness for some members of the University community who felt that the statement was inappropriate and should never have been issued.  The intention was to draw attention to some of the issues men tell us they encounter and to follow this up by highlighting in particular the availability of mental health and welfare support which we know men are sometimes reluctant to access.

The Equality and Diversity Committee is clear that the main focus of gender equality work should continue to be on the inequalities faced by women, and in particular the under-representation of women in the professoriate and senior management.  We believe that we can make meaningful progress in addressing these issues, while at the same time addressing other aspects of the equality and diversity agenda.  To this end, we are putting in place new structures to extend and strengthen our approach to the Athena Swan awards, which provide a framework for our work on gender equality.

We will certainly reflect on the views expressed in the open letter and think twice about marking future Men’s Days. In the meantime, the statement marking this year’s International Men’s Day has been withdrawn.’

I applaud the University for acting in the face of manifest unhappiness. This does not mean I feel that the issues men face should not be given attention.


Help us do science! I’ve teamed up with researcher Paige Brown Jarreau to create a survey of Athene Donald’s Blog readers (as well as 49 other blogs) during October and now running till Nov 20th. By participating, you’ll be helping me improve my own blog and contributing to SCIENCE on blog readership. For completing the survey, readers will be entered into a draw for a $50.00 Amazon gift card (100 available, or guaranteed 2 per specific blog included in this survey), plus FREE science art from Paige’s Photography for participating, as well as a chance to win a t-shirt and other perks! It should only take 10-15 minutes to complete. You can find the survey here:

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Choosing your Path, Seizing Opportunities

I gave a talk today with this title at the Institute of Physics’ Careers Day ‘Taking Control of Your Career as a Female Physicist’. What I said is relevant to anyone setting out regardless of gender and, I suspect, regardless of discipline. They are, I believe, home truths from which most of us can benefit. Although women (and other minorities) may face more substantial obstacles than men simply by virtue of being present in small numbers in physics, often feeling isolated and unsupported, the basic ‘rules’ for what you need to do to take control are pretty generic. In writing my talk I came up with a list of ten such rules. There are no doubt more and the whole issue could be tackled in many directions. But, for what it’s worth, here are my golden ten.

  1. Don’t be passive: Ask questions of yourself and others.

If you don’t know what you want to do next it’s important to try and work it out. Sitting around waiting for a bolt from the blue to reveal all is not a good strategy so it is wise to start by asking others the questions that are bubbling away inside. Ask anyone and everyone (and particularly those just a little bit ahead of you) about what they do and what skills they need to do it. Ask the careers service for advice. Ask your supervisors and those around you what your strengths and weaknesses are. All this will help you build up a picture of what might be the next step you want to take.

  1. Don’t be passive: Don’t sit and wait for things to happen.

There’s no point just waiting for that next step magically to happen, for someone to tap you on the shoulder. You have to keep an eye out for the opportunities. You do. Not your supervisor, your best friend or the head of department. Perhaps one of them will come up trumps and draw a good opportunity to your attention – if so you’re lucky. But it doesn’t always happen that way and the more proactive you are the more you can make things go the way you want. Even if the first thing you do isn’t your ultimate goal it may help you in the right direction and alert others to what it is you’re trying to do next.

  1. Seize opportunities.

And if someone does draw something to your attention you then have to be willing to give it a go. You may feel it’s risky but could help you on your way. If you turn it down you’ll never find out. (Of course sometimes it may be risky and irrelevant, in which case you’d be right to turn it down). But doing something that isn’t quite what you want but could take you nearer your goal has to be wise. If you feel it will stretch you – that’s healthy. If you only do things that are obvious and easy you are not going to progress very far.

  1. Don’t assume you’re stupid just because things are tough.

On the other hand, if you do things that stretch you it will feel difficult. You may know, indeed are likely to know, less than those around you when you first start a new role. This is natural. It does not mean you’re stupid. Stretching is all about learning new skills (and knowledge) and it is inevitable that it will take you a while to master these. It is far too easy to fall into the trap of thinking because you aren’t as good at something as others around you, that somehow you’re a fool. Wait a while and you’ll find you improve. Maybe soon it will be you helping the next newcomer and trying to support them.

  1. Don’t assume other people are ‘better’ than you because they act confident.

Some people’s way of coping with difficulties and novelty is bluster. They cannot lose face by admitting they haven’t a clue what’s going on and so they look ultra-confident. If you yourself are shaking in your shoes, this can be very dispiriting. However, a loud voice does not mean the content is right; answering a reasonable question by raising eyebrows and looking shocked that you don’t know the answer already is almost always a sign of someone who doesn’t know the answer either but isn’t prepared to let on.

  1. Networking is not a dirty word.

Somehow people seem to associate networking with sucking up to people. Maybe some people use it like this, but I see it as little more than taking an interest in the people you meet. If sometime later you can be useful to them or they vice versa, so much the better. Talking to your peers may be illuminating in the present and provide you with names of people to invite to conferences/give seminars etc in the future. So, when faced with a roomful of people you don’t know (as at a conference) take your courage in your hands, introduce yourself and see where it takes you. The worst that can happen is that the conversation goes nowhere.

  1. Failure in one situation does not mean YOU are a failure

As with rule 4, if you are pushing yourself to try out new things it is likely that sometimes you will fail. Failure is not unusual nor is it a sign that you will always fail. The author Samuel Beckett said ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ In science failure is a necessary staging post in the development of new ideas. The important thing is to learn from failure and do something that gets nearer the truth. In the wider world, this is equally true. Do not give up at the first setback, but learn from it and try to get nearer the right answer next time.

  1. What matters is not failure itself, but how you cope with it.

And that leads directly into my next rule. If you give up at the first hurdle you will never get to where you want to be. Failing is always unpleasant, but so is not getting to where you’re aiming. So, it is worth picking yourself up and either trying again or finding an alternative route to your goal. Despairing, assuming you’re rubbish is simply self-destructive. It takes courage to keep going, of course it does, but you have to convince yourself the goal is worth the effort of dusting yourself down and trying again.

  1. Always be true to yourself.

People, blogs (like this one) are liable to give advice. You’re entitled to pick and choose what bits to follow and to reject things that don’t fit who you are. In particular, if someone tries really hard to convince you to do something your inner self says is not right, ignore them. Ultimately you have to be the judge of what would work for you. If you feel you’re forcing your round self into a square hole you are likely to be right. Seek further advice, keep working on what you’re told until you feel comfortable. This is as true if someone says be loud and extrovert when you know you’re an introvert, as when they try to convince you that you really do want to take up that position in Alaska.

  1. Rule 10 Don’t kid yourself luck doesn’t have a role to play.

It’s always easy to assume everyone else got where they did solely on merit and it’s only you who has succeeded because of a bit of luck. That’s rubbish. Most people will have been affected by luck at some critical juncture (just as they will also have been set back by bad timing, ill health or some other kind of misfortune). You may ‘make your own luck’ as they say – and I would agree, particularly if you start networking, seizing opportunities and being willing to be proactive about looking for opportunities – but for just about everyone at some point chance will have contributed to their progression. Just because luck has played a part doesn’t mean that merit hasn’t too.

I hope the early career physicists who heard me illustrate these rules by my own examples this week felt reassured. Life is uncertain and frequently does not go according to plan. But you have to live with the hand you’re dealt with and get on with it. Good luck!



Posted in Careers, Science Culture | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Eradicating Gender Stereotyping: How can Athena Swan Awards Help?

There is nothing like seeing gender stereotyping through reverse eyes to highlight its stupidity. Women are used to intrusive, inappropriate questions about their looks and dress, even in professional situations (see this recent story about Russian astronauts for an example); they are used to being judged by criteria quite different from men, be it about being aggressive rather than assertive or being expected to be the one to sort out the childcare and the laundry. But, turn these statements around – as Twitter user @manwhohasitall does – and it really brings it home. Look at these recent examples of his (I presume given the twitterhandle) wit:

  • TODAY’S QUESTION: Is it time we focused on male politicians’ POLITICS instead of their hair, clothes and parental status?
  • To all intelligent men. Don’t be AFRAID of your intelligence! It’s OK to be a man and be intelligent. Some women actually find it attractive.
  • I have absolutely nothing against male chief executives, as long as they are able to make tough decisions.
  • Dad with a career? Pay attention to your eyes. Dark circles from lack of sleep can make any man feel insecure & come across as incapable.

And, most relevant to this blogpost:

  • “I don’t like being called a ‘male scientist’. I’m just a scientist,” says Ben. Aren’t some people funny? He IS a male scientist!

The trouble is, it’s still too easy to see these comments as ‘normal’ when referring to women – in the media or in person. Should I, for instance, in participating in a recent ‘photo opportunity’ highlighting three successful young researchers who all happened to be female, have made a fuss when the photographer referred to them not as ‘intellectual’ but as ‘attractive’? It feels churlish in a way; the male photographer meant no harm (I know that’s no defence), probably thought he was being complimentary, and yet it is totally demeaning in a professional context.

For university departments these fundamental issues need to be addressed. Producing lists of committee members where the women are marked with an {f} (as happened in my own university until rather recently) or asterisked (as I saw in a separate external list just this week) immediately implies everyone else is male by default (and yes I know we’re not necessarily binary either, but I think we have to start there). Whereas it is as well to know what the gender make-up of a committee is, marking the men with an {m} and the women with an {f} removes the presumption that if you’re not male you’re odd.

We should be sure that people are judged solely on merit, not filtered through the eyes of what is deemed appropriate, whether they talk in a low- or high-pitched voice or happen to have an elderly parent or a toddler to worry about. We should be aware that student surveys tend to view male lecturers as more knowledgeable and professional (see here and here) so that such ratings should be used with extreme caution in internal reviews; that women who attempt to negotiate a higher salary are penalised and hence a gender pay gap is likely to persist for the foreseeable future without compensating action being taken by the management; that women are often assumed to be unambitious and, particularly if they are mothers, less competent than men of similar standing but this is, indeed, an assumption not based on evidence; and that someone who talks loudly and at length doesn’t necessarily know what they’re talking about more than someone who is less domineering (indeed, it’s often the opposite) and should be treated accordingly.

University leaders at every level need to bear these and many similar issues in mind when it comes to appointments, promotions and career opportunities. Bigger – be it grant income, h index or group size – does not necessarily mean better. Those who are the arbiters of people’s fates need to be much more conscious of the subtleties of what merit and success look like, not fall back on measures that are increasingly shown to be unhelpful and systematically disadvantaging certain sections – notably including women – in academe.

Athena Swan committees and diversity leads/equality champions (according to the language an institution uses and the structures they put in place) should act as the conscience for these leaders. They are able to raise examples of both good and bad practice that they come across; to share action plans across departments and to make suggestions for improving the working environment for everyone. But more particularly, they can be the conduits for passing on information to the leadership about local issues that are specific rather than systemic. These may relate to poor behaviour in a pocket of a department – inappropriate posters, comments or actions that don’t amount to harassment but do amount to a difficult atmosphere. They may be down to a particular research group having seminars at 1730 and then heading off to the pub, thereby excluding parents or those who don’t believe the pub is a comfortable place to hold research discussions. Or they may arise because certain parts of a large department are failing to apply recommended practice about matters such as (KIT) Keeping in Touch Days and requests for part-time or non-standard hours of work leading to uneven responses to such requests.

The Athena Swan awards have proved to be a significant factor in encouraging conversations about diversity issues and disseminating examples of good practice. As long as they continue to be about facilitating such conversations and internal reflections their importance will remain. If any institution starts to use them, not as the motivator for debate and action but as simply a tick-box exercise which has to be gone through for the colour of the logo on their headed notepaper their worth will instantly be diminished. Departments need to keep their eyes on the primary goal of creating a more equal and creative workplace and not being fooled into believing that an award confers some sort of prestige and that no further work is needed.

Athena Swan has to be about a work in progress. Every submission’s action plan is only a staging post on the road to eradicating inequality. It is unlikely that, in my lifetime at least, there won’t be more that a department can do to improve gender equality (and that’s before we start on race or disability issues). Think of the action plan as just the beginning of the work, not the end itself.


Help us do science! I’ve teamed up with researcher Paige Brown Jarreau to create a survey of Athene Donald’s Blog readers (as well as 49 other blogs) during October and now running till Nov 20th. By participating, you’ll be helping me improve my own blog and contributing to SCIENCE on blog readership. For completing the survey, readers will be entered into a draw for a $50.00 Amazon gift card (100 available, or guaranteed 2 per specific blog included in this survey), plus FREE science art from Paige’s Photography for participating, as well as a chance to win a t-shirt and other perks! It should only take 10-15 minutes to complete. You can find the survey here:


This post was originally written for QMUL’s Institute of Dentistry E+D pages.


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