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!