Progression and Backlash

One of the blogs that I try to read regularly – beyond my local microcosm of Occam’s Typewriter – is that of FemaleScienceProfessor, also known as FSP for short .  You can guess I would feel a sense of shared identity with this writer, whose name and even sub-discipline I certainly don’t know. She is based in the US and writes an anonymous blog that deals with the rather practical problems that a US professor faces, many of which don’t mesh that well with those of us on this side of the Pond. I’d like to pick up on two of her recent posts, because I think they exemplify why things in the US are probably even stickier for women (and other minorities too) than in the UK.  The two posts deal with the tenure clock and what would appear to be positive discrimination. I’ll start with the latter which is the more recent post entitled Target of Resentment.

In this country, positive discrimination is illegal.  The situation, described in FSP’s post, of creating a faculty position as a ‘target of opportunity’ to hire someone from an under-represented group could not happen here, although the recent legislation may mean (and I think there will be many battles of interpretation over Harriet Harman’s Act) that all other things being equal the under-represented group member may be hired over an equally qualified person from a majority group, shall we say a white male for sake of argument. What is legal is positive action, which means searching out individuals from under-represented groups and encouraging them to apply. So, within academic science, it would be nice to think search committees went out looking for women and ethnic minorities and drawing a job ad to their attention, although I’m not sure how often they do so in practice. However, if such people choose to apply then from that point on all applicants should be treated equally as far as UK law is concerned. Personally that’s how I think it should be because, and this was the concern FSP was discussing, otherwise there is scope for the appointee to become a target of resentment. And they will always be open to the taunt ‘you were only appointed because you were a woman’ or an Afro-Caribbean or whatever else the specific case may be.  That would be incredibly undermining. Even with the way things are here, I have heard a few women express that fear about themselves, that really they were only appointed because of their sex.  Not good for their self-esteem.

Many years ago, when I lived in the US, I was nearly in that position myself, when the Ivy League university I was at set out to appoint their first female faculty member in Engineering: only women were allowed to apply for a position in the Engineering School which was explicitly created to meet this apparent ‘need’. These were the heady days of affirmative action, when black women were known as ‘twofers’ because they solved two minority problems simultaneously and so they were very much in demand. In the end, although I was offered the position I never took it up because the Royal Society created their wonderful University Research Fellowship scheme just in time – I was one of the first recipients during that period when there were essentially no standard faculty posts within the UK system. I have never regretted the decision to stay in the UK, and I was particularly fortunate that my erstwhile colleagues back at Cornell did not seem to hold my late withdrawal from the post against me, so that I was able to maintain an excellent relationship with my former professor there.  But from afar I could see that affirmative action had its downside, and I believe led to a backlash which could indeed be summed up by the taunt I described above. Had I taken up the Cornell Engineering position the jibe would indeed have been precisely true, I could only have got that job because I was a woman. Whether or not one becomes a target of resentment, I do worry that it doesn’t really solve the problem, merely creates another one: the woman (or ethnic minority) worries she wasn’t really good enough to get the job on merit, the men around her (or the whites) believe she probably isn’t up to the job and so they can look down on her. Who wins in a situation like that?

So I believe the UK has it right: let’s have active steps taken to encourage minorities to apply (as well as good mentoring all the way up to that point), but then let the best candidate win so everyone knows it was a fair competition. The only thing in the way of this happy scenario at the moment is that I fear very few appointment/search committees actually do take positive action very seriously. Instead all too often they rely on who knows whom, who gets the job ad drawn to their attention, and who gets the encouragement from their professors or colleagues that they should apply even if perhaps they don’t tick quite all the boxes of desirable attributes specified in the job ad.  Nevertheless, I would say this was UK 1 – US 0 (I don’t know enough about the legal position in other countries to pass any comment).

The second FSP post concerned the tenure clock and was stimulated by a report produced by the University of California, Berkeley about Keeping Women in the Science Pipeline which was also discussed at length in a New York Times blogpost. The relevant point of these various articles is how universities handle women who have children during the period of their tenure track: should the tenure clock be stopped or not? Should women ask for extra time or not? As FSP says

we could discuss whether stopping the tenure clock gives women “extra” time or effectively gives them the same time as those who have not given birth or adopted a child during their tenure-track years

but she also points out that just about every US university makes it possible for women to ask for such a stoppage. What I find rather offensive about this is that they have to ask, and try to deduce in advance if the very act of asking will in fact be held against them as a sign of weakness before they do so. I think because the laws about maternity leave are so much more generous and open here compared with the US, as indeed are the regulations about all kinds of leave, we don’t have quite this bind by the time a woman is on the faculty.  Probation is not the same as tenure-track, and the attrition rate at the end of probation is mercifully extremely low. The problems arise, of course, for women who haven’t yet got that permanent position under their belt and one could argue that many of the fellowship schemes – such as those operated by the Royal Society I mentioned above – act as a de facto tenure track scheme. Nevertheless these too are covered by quite clear rules about maternity leave and part-time working so that the complexities imposed by a ‘tenure clock’ decision still don’t really apply. (I assume the same situation applies to all the charity fellowships on the biomedical side, though I am not at all well-informed about them; I know there are some complexities about continuation funding and the need for university co-funding which perhaps complicates the situation much more than I appreciate for child-bearing women.).

So my summary is UK 2 – US 0. In other words, however much we in the UK may feel that the odds are stacked against women in scientific academia, we are still better off than our colleagues in the US.  Nevertheless there is a long way to go!

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11 Responses to Progression and Backlash

  1. Alice Bell says:

    I once had the option to tick a sort of weak +ve discrimination box in an application for a job in the UK, but as a disabled person rather than as a woman. If I ticked, I’d be guaranteed an interview if I fitted the criteria (which I did). In the end I didn’t tick, because I knew that if I did get that job, I’d never feel comfortable in the post. I didn’t get an interview, and I later learnt that someone in the same sub-discipline as me (but several years ahead of me) had got the job, so I doubt I would have got it anyway.

    I find it hard enough with informal +ve discrimination (e.g. I assume I’m asked to sit on panels, etc, because I’m a woman). As many have pointed out, this may be due to a feminine lack of self-confidence and maybe it’s just a cultural thing – the American’s are used to this, where as we’re not.

    I also wonder if gender, race (esp. in specific context of US) and disability are different here? I’m not sure though.

  2. cromercrox says:

    In 1996 I had a sabbatical at UCLA teaching a graduate seminar course on science publication. ‘Affirmative Action’ was a big thing there at the time. I remember having a drink with a young scientist who told me that the only reason he couldn’t get a job was because he was white and male – anyone who was non-white or non-male with equivalent qualifications always got preferment. Now, I don’t know if what he told me was true or not, but there was definitely a degree of resentment, and also a feeling of stunned disbelief: to an individual, it seems very much that they are being picked on for the misfortune of not having been born with the currently favoured skin-tone or genitalia. Discrimination is discrimiation, whether positive or negative.

  3. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I’ve been quite shocked over the last few years by tales of the ridiculously stingy parental leave allowances in the US. I know people who’ve had as little as one month off – crazy! I don’t know what the laws are in the UK, but in Canada you get one year of paid parental leave, which can be split between the parents in any way they want – so both parents could take six months, together or one after the other, or one parent could take all twelve months, or any other combination.

    There was an interesting discussion a while ago on DrugMonkey’s blog after I mentioned that the CIHR (Canadian equivalent of the NIH) uses a CV format that contains a compulsory “Interruptions and Delays” section. This apparently was quite revolutionary! DM thought that adopting this practice might help the NIH contribute less to the “leaky pipeline” of women in science, because “The point is to make it default and a part of every application so that the applications of those who feel it necessary to use it will not stick out as unusual.”. Perhaps adding something similar to tenure application packages might also help?

  4. UScience says:

    Athene Donald – I agree with your assessment of the UK vs. the US, but I think it is important to note that these ‘target of opportunity’ positions in the US are not for hiring less qualified people (who happen to have the specified characteristics). In many cases, these are used to hire people who are as qualified as any of the white/male top applicants, and in some cases for hiring a female/minority superstar.

    cromercox – your drinking buddy was delusional, and looking for a scapegoat. If the (or you) looked at the data, you would see that the vast majority of faculty positions in 1996 (or any other year you want to look at) for the physical sciences, engineering, or math went to men. Even if the % of women hired into faculty positions equaled the % of women receiving PhDs in these fields (and this has never happened), his point would still be bogus. Your friend may have been well qualified for a tenure-track position, but I am sure that his bleak employment options were not the fault of his gender.

    • cromercrox says:

      Oh, I’m sure you’re right, but the resentment was there, and causing resentment in those you need to convince is probably not a good strategy for advancing one’s cause.

      • Cara says:

        There would be resentment from some quarters regardless. This is about correcting systematic injustice; the fact that this is seen as a “cause” that requires “convincing” is a huge part of the problem in the first place.

        There’s no way to fix what’s broken without angering those invested in the status quo, who think their viewpoint is “rational” and “objective” when in fact it’s neither, but is merely the dominant (accepted) one.

  5. Cath – I had no idea things were so much better in Canada (compared with either the UK or the US). I believe the law is about to change in the UK to allow the second 6 months of the statutory year’s maternity leave to be split as desirerd between both parents (the first 6 months will remain simply as maternity leave). But I don’t think this is paid, or at least not all of it, and it certainly isn’t on full pay. So how this will work out in practice, how many fathers will take some of that time off as leave, isn’t at all clear. I believe in Sweden – where the parental leave of a year can be split – there is evidence (though I couldn’t cite the study) suggesting academic men use the time ‘off’ to write books and papers rather than bond with the baby!

    I am intrigued by the requirement of CIHR and its mandatory CV request for information about ‘interruptions and delays’. I am quite sure that making it mandatory is hugely helpful. As I discussed in an earlier post my university is just changing the promotions form so that it no longer asks for ‘special’ circumstances, only ‘additional’ circumstances to cover exactly this situation of time out, ill health etc. The hope is that now men as well as women will feel able to fill it in and be upfront about circumstances; again it is too early to tell if it helps. But anything that takes away the thought that men and women are different on this front, that only women need tick this box etc, must be welcome.

    UScience, I think the point is not that less qualified minorities get ‘targetted opportunity’ positions but that the perception lingers that this is the case. By putting a special label on such posts there is always the danger of this continuing. My post wsa prompted by a US post on FSP so clearly this anxiety still lingers in the US; and in the UK doesn’t arise because it is illegal. So, positive action of the sort I described is likely to be much more effective, if properly applied, because it widens the search and consequent field of applicants, without there being a suspicion of anything other than merit factoring in the final appointment

  6. There is still a massive pipeline problem at the pre-tenure level though, and that regards research grant posts. Often, grants are written with one specific person in mind who then does the work (i.e. a Fellowship in all but name), but when that person does get pregnant (or needs to take extended carer’s leave), there is no option for extending the grant – even if the work is not time-critical and the work to be done by the person is not on a critical path. This will become more of a problem as lecturer positions dwindle, and women spend some or all of their fertile period on soft money.

    • You’re absolutely right. It seems to me there is a clear contradiction between the need to support the individual (as in the Concordat) and the apparent insistence from funders that work has to be done in a set time to be ‘timely’. It is something I would hope the funders might face up to. The Athena Forum has been in dialogue with them (at least I mean those in the UK) and I believe all research councils have at least standardised their policies and advice about maternity leave which gives clarity if nothing more. But that is very different from resolving the problem you identify. I have known a lot of frustrated PI’s who wish to support the women, and be able to take them back on at the end of their leave, and the funding situation makes it impossible, to the detriment of the researchers.

  7. Helen says:

    I\m interested in this post, because I’ve just returned to the UK after nearly four years of postdoc research in the US. I came back to take up a research council fellowship, and I was sure that I wanted to come back to the UK. Working conditions and the more human balance between work and life in this country were two of the reasons I wanted to return.

    However, after four months back here in the UK, I’ve noticed my gender having an effect in the workplace more than I have in the whole of the previous 13 years (since I started as a physics undergraduate). I’m patronised, ignored, occasionally insulted and a whole load of other low-level stuff that doesn’t matter in one situation but does when the statistics start to stack up. I’m astonished. I had never really noticed being a \woman in physics\ as opposed to just being a physicist, and suddenly I’ve hit this brick wall of discrimination. I’m not sure whether this is the UK in general or whether it’s to do with me having a more senior position in the system. On my own personal score sheet, I definitely now have a US-1, UK-0 on gender equality.

    • I’m really sorry to hear you say this, Helen, not least because I know which department you work in, but I am not unduly surprised. I do think things get tougher as one rises through the stages, because you are no longer just a bench scientist but starting to stand out as different. All I can say is stick in there, don’t let them get you down and find support. There will be other women around, even if not in your immediate vicinity, and they may be able to help you devise strategies for survival and how to nullify the effects of those who would patronise or insult you. If it gets too bad the university/department will have policies for handling the perpetrators. I don’t know if you’ve read some of my earlier posts e.g. Do Support Groups Support? , but quite a lot of them are meant to encourage people like you find ways to keep your head above water. It’s interesting that you found the US better, because reading many of the blogs from that side of the Atlantic it doesn’t sound as if everyone has a happy experience. Good luck!