ASSET 2010 – A Metaphorical Call to Arms for HEI’s

There is a danger that the message that there is an uneven playing field for women in science (and indeed in many other fields) has been repeated so often that it is no longer heard. However, it is still true. Study after study has shown how women are, in ways that may be subtle or not so subtle, disadvantaged at every stage of their career trajectory. The reasons for this are myriad, ranging from cues from societal pressures and culture, as exemplified by the dreadful ‘I’m too pretty to do math t-shirts’ I’ve discussed before, to people’s preconceptions about what a scientist should be like at interview, to the challenges of combining the intense life of a bench scientist with having a family. The ASSET survey provides a longitudinal study of how men and women feel about their life as scientists in academia: the full report on the most recent survey, carried out in early 2010, has just been released. This survey asks individuals – men and women – to comment on how well they feel their careers have progressed, what they feel has made most difference to them, and how they believe they are perceived and fit in to their working environment. The report should be a call to arms for departments and institutions to sit down and consider how things really are for their employees. Institutions will have been sent their own local data to compare with national averages and analyse what their workforce are happy with and what less so. I would urge all PVC’s or HR managers to consider their strengths and weaknesses and act upon the findings – my own university will certainly be doing this. Then, maybe, when the next ASSET survey is carried out – as I hope it will be – there will be a marked reduction of the differences between men and women at all stages of the career ladder.

The data shows that still, women feel disadvantaged in many ways – and that the gaps between men’s and women’s perceptions are decreasing only very slowly. It is hard to make absolute comparisons between the years, because the questions are not always identical, but it is clear that things are still far from parity. When the raw data was first put out some months ago, I wrote about some of the key issues that I saw lurking in the data. Reiterating the message above that institutions should respond to the findings, I hope they will take note of some of the following.

Having read the report, one thing I find particularly dispiriting is the fact that even in things that one would have thought were driven purely by process there are differences, notably in how often individuals are appraised. Why should this be so? Why should women be less likely to be appraised? Now, not everyone finds appraisal useful but I would hazard a guess women would be actually more likely to respond positively than men because so often they seek and value external validation of how they are performing. But, leaving aside the gender angle, it is also clear from the results that the more senior you are the more likely you are to be appraised. This is simply illogical. If resources for carrying out appraisals are limited, the people who will derive most benefit are the early career researchers, not the established faculty. So, direct resources to where they can be of most assistance not waste them on those whose futures are already secured.

Rather like equal pay reviews, organisations should be asking themselves if their promotions’ procedures are fair and whether men and women fare equally well – and if not why not. But hiding behind this lurks the question of whether men and women are equally likely to apply for promotion. The ASSET survey shows, as it has on previous occasions, that women seem to be less familiar with the promotion criteria and processes than men. This is worrying. It means that they are less likely to feel confident in putting in an application in the first place, perhaps thinking they need to wait for someone to tap them on the shoulder saying it’s OK and/or wise to put their name forward. Furthermore, around a quarter of women feel they suffer from a lack of useful feedback and advice about their career trajectories and what they should be doing to further their prospects, whereas hardly any men responded in the same way. Maybe this is just another example of women being more diffident than men; not that the men were actually being given better advice but that they didn’t feel they needed it in the first place. Whatever the reason, the outcome is the same: the women feel disadvantaged and organisations need to explore whether they genuinely are and if so what can be done to remove any differences, simultaneously with reassuring the women so that they feel more comfortable and confident.

It is interesting to see to what men and women attribute their success. I also find it instructive to compare the answers to this question with the earlier surveys: it seems that everyone feels they work much harder now than they used to, with almost everyone (upwards of 95% in 2010) attributing their success, at least in part, to hard work this time around; this is to be compared with figures of only 72% for male postdocs and 81% for male professors in 2006. Interesting that this has changed so markedly in the last 5 years. Beyond this factor, men are more likely to attribute some of their success to luck than women (as I have discussed before), women more likely to value their partners’ support.

This survey deals predominantly with perceptions and feelings, but a final striking conclusion is that women by and large feel less well integrated into their departments than men. Being a minority, as one suspects many of them will be, is rarely comfortable. Furthermore, men are more likely to report being encouraged to undertake activities viewed as valuable for career progression and this ties in with the earlier comments about promotion; they also reported being more likely to have been invited to apply for higher level posts and to receive support from senior colleagues. These may appear to be relatively little things, but nevertheless together they can add up to a substantial disadvantage for women over a lifetime.

To end on an optimistic note, it is heartening to see that in comparison with faculty, the responses from postdocs indicate a greater feeling of optimism among the women, and smaller differences with men. Let us hope this really does translate into an improving climate. However, such improvements will only happen with the goodwill, determination and explicit leadership by example of senior management across the higher education sector. It is more than time for action to remedy the problems that each successive survey has highlighted.

Hannah Devlin has written her own very interesting commentary on the report on the Times Eureka website.

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5 Responses to ASSET 2010 – A Metaphorical Call to Arms for HEI’s

  1. Amanda says:

    Interesting survey and interesting results. Most of the conclusions are true about men and women. That is because roles for both genders are changing with time, but they have not been defined explicitly. By the end of that day, women ends up taking care of almost everything in a family.

    But as the times are changing, men are handling some of the duties beautifully that women used to handle before, be it children or house chores. So, by the time next survey is out, you may find more women comfortable in their career and work zone.

  2. I agree that organizations should monitor their promotion processes to ensure they are fair. However, I think it would be useful to clarify what is meant by ‘fair’. I believe that a promotions process in which the proportion of women among those promoted matches the proportion of women among those eligible for promotion, in other word, one in which the probability that women are promoted is the same as the probability that men are promoted, is fair. There are at least two problems with this approach in practice. One is a measurement problem: how different does the ratio (number of women promoted to number of women eligible) from the ratio (number of men promoted to number of men eligible) have to be for us to be confident that they reflect an actual bias? Should we demand statistical significance, or use an arbitrary criterion, as we do with gender pay gaps? In some disciplines this procedure becomes essentially meaningless. If no women out of four are promoted while two out of twenty-three men are promoted what can you meaningfully say about the presence or absence of bias? The other problem is that it is possible to have a promotions procedure in which the proportion of women among those promoted matches the proportion available for promotion but nevertheless there is widespread unhappiness with the process. There are numerous best practice guides and checklists (e.g. Royal Society of Chemistry ‘Planning for Success: Good Practice in University Science Departments, 2008) that can be used to assess promotion procedures. Way back in 2002 the Athena Project report. ‘Athena Guide to Good Practice 1999-2002’ stated:

    … the best departments do not target measures specifically at women but create a culture of diversity where all individuals can thrive and be rewarded for their contribution, regardless of gender and family circumstances.

    Of course, if the alternative to targeted measures is that nothing happens at all then targeted measures are preferable.

    Among the best practices recommended (taken from an earlier Royal Society of Chemistry Report) are:

    • letting staff know if they can put themselves forward for increments and promotion
    • legitimising decisions about balancing work and home
    • supporting and rewarding individuals though appraisal, development and mentoring
    • a broadly based reward mechanism”

    To which I would add: encouraging women to serve on committees that will increase their visibility within their discipline.

    Also, organizations should be encouraged to ask how do they fulfil the requirements of best practice and how effective are their measures? Having HR send a large, and largely incomprehensible, document to everyone who is technically eligible for promotion may be intended to inform but does it succeed?

    My plea to organizations would be ‘Assess your promotions procedures against best practice and if they don’t measure up fix them.’

    • Esther, thanks for these comments. If women feel they are not informed about promotion, but men are, then I suspect something is wrong about the process which could easily be rectified to make ‘fairer’. But if processes are working then everyone, men and women, should know what’s going on. I agree, targetted actions are not necessarily the right way forward for promotions, but making sure everyone is treated the same should be the sine qua non . What you don’t refer to, but may also lurk under any system which appears to promote men and women with equal success, is whether they are applying at comparable stages in their careers. Another step a university can take is to look at the time an individual spends at each career stage to see if there are systematic differences between the sexes. Of course, even if there are this does not mean the system is unfair – it could happen for all kinds of reasons – but it then warrants further investigation.

      What I suspect is obvious from ASSET2010 (and the earlier ones), even without getting too hung up about the definition of ‘fair’, is that men and women’s experiences are different. In what way will be subject and institution dependent. But unless the differences are squarely looked at and considered/confronted, they will persist.

  3. Alison Rodger says:

    One issue that is seldom if ever mentioned is the role in careers of late night conversations in bars. I suspect this is an activity in which the average woman partakes less (or less comfortably) than the average man. So we need to develop alternative social norms.

  4. I think this is part of the reason women may not always feel well-integrated. Interestingly, in my sector the female students decided to have a hen night – to which all the women in the group were invited, myself included. I wasn’t sure this was appropriate either, but none of the men seemed bothered. Yet if it happened in reverse – a lads only night – I think there would have been much more anxiety. Unintentional exclusion, or at least the unintended consequences of something as innocent as pub nights out, or propping up the bar at a conference, undoubtedly can have knock-on effects but I think it is important not to get over-anxious about this as long as everyone is potentially included. What matters is when the late night behaviour gets out of hand…..

    As I wrote previously

    I would hazard a guess that relatively few men have been sexually propositioned at conferences. I would also suspect that at least half, and possibly nearer 100% of women have been. I should hasten to add this is an unscientific comment, as I have no statistics to back up either of those statements. I merely know that leery drunken males can often be found at the conference bar.

    This is why women are anxious about turning up at the bar, and that is the social norm that needs to be changed in my view.