What will it take for true equality to occur, not just in academic science but in employment anywhere? One key aspect is that people at the top not just ‘talk the talk’ but ‘walk the walk’. So, when talking about family friendly policies it is important that leaders show they mean it. Some years ago I attended an event at the House of Lords where various people spoke about what their own company was doing. Examples included flexible working, teleworking, job shares and many obvious examples of this sort. But what struck me was the story of the CEO of some large company – at this distance in time I cannot remember which – who left work early each Friday so he could go and meet his children from school. I am not applauding him because as a man he did this. I am applauding him because as a CEO he was making a very positive statement that this was an activity he valued and that he recognized others in his company would value it too. In other words, that it was OK to care about your family, and make arrangements – with your line manager, perhaps, about hours of work – to ensure that (within reason) caring responsibilities could be catered for. If the boss does this it carries a very powerful message.
Having recently attended a meeting with my own VC with the Daphne Jackson Trust about returner fellowships, I know how much he cares about these matters. Here is a man who is prepared to lead from the top and make a cash commitment if that is what it takes. This week, at his termly meetings with heads of departments he invited me to come to talk about how important it is for departments to be proactive about equality issues and, when I had finished my brief overview last night, reinforced it with his own hard-hitting words. Both the upcoming REF, with apparently stringent requirements going to be imposed on those making decisions about entries on the equality front, plus the potential moves by a variety of funders to ask departments and universities (see here and here for my exhortations on this front; there are interesting and interested noises coming from several funders) to show their commitment to equality through Athena Swan, it is no longer sufficient for departments to look the other way. Nor is it sufficient for the person at the top simply to say they care about these things: they must demonstrate this commitment too.
There are many ways that leadership of an organisation can make a difference by quite small actions. That is why the Athena Swan Charter is so important by requiring this commitment from the senior management; the actions it requires for individual departments to take can have significant impact on women and men too, by creating a more inclusive culture. Timing of meetings, for instance, can shift the balance for some from attending these under duress and fretting about whether someone else has remembered to pick up the children from school, to making accomplishing both activities straightforward. Monitoring whether there is a greater drop-out of women than men at each stage from first year undergraduates to professorial appointments and promotions can highlight where the system is causing problems.
Finding out what people feel was at the heart of the ASSET survey, whose report is celebrated with an event at the Royal Society today. Those universities and departments who had significant numbers of responses completed can use the responses to evaluate what is going right and wrong locally. More targeted questionnaires and monitoring can then be used to inform what policy and practice changes are needed, because every insititution will have its own culture and its own successes and failures. But, no longer can people bury their heads and say this doesn’t matter; if funding does indeed become pervasively dependent on a minimum sort of demonstration of ‘best practice’ it will force the issue. About time one might say. There are too many examples I come across of less than ideal procedures, sometimes one suspects deliberately so, more often just due to a lack of awareness.
At the Heads of Department meeting I attended, I referred to the poor advice some women receive about how to handle career breaks. A particular case history was put forward by someone else of a case for promotion he had seen where everyone was very enthusiastic about some woman, and yet her publication record was surprisingly thin. By pressing the department it was possible to extract the fact that she had actually had more than one child during the past few years and yet this nowhere appeared explicitly. It makes a nonsense of judging people if all the facts are not present; and extended time away from the job doing something as natural and important as having a baby should not be obscured. No one is being served well if heads of departments (or others) give the advice – as they obviously still frequently do – that it’s best not to mention the inconvenient production of a baby rather than a Nature paper or two. These messages need to be said over and over again until our culture changes to recognize that 24/7 working is neither ultimately productive nor beneficial and that life beyond the lab is also of importance. (I will have more to say about this in the context of the REF in a couple of weeks).
Families matter and, despite the pressure cooker life that is academia, work-life balance matters too. Recently I was encouraging a senior male member from the Management Committee of another university not to feel embarrassed that he couldn’t give a talk on a Saturday because he had a prior commitment to his young son. The more men feel able to say this, the more women will too. The more academic life is full of people who believe other people matter, the more smart people will not want to leave science for the wrong reasons, driven out by an inimical culture. This will benefit women, but it will benefit many men too.