Last week I was put in touch with a reporter from my local newspaper, the Cambridge News, who was writing a story about the University’s Annual Report. They seemed concerned about the lack of women academic staff (and ethnic minorities) – as we all are – but they also seemed rather more surprised than perhaps they should have been,given that it’s data that has always been in the public domain. In fact, they initially contacted my classicist colleague Professor Mary Beard by email, but she was travelling and passed the query on to me. So I sent them a carefully worded reply, to the effect the numbers were low but we were working hard to improve the situation and stating that I was the university’s gender equality champion. When the article came out I was very pleased to see they had used my quote accurately and in an appropriate context. But then I looked more carefully at what had been written and felt a lot less happy (as far as I can see the story didn’t make it onto their website, so you can’t check it).
They used quotes from two Cambridge professors in the story, my colleague Malcolm Longair (ex-head of the Physics Department) and myself, both of us saying very much the same thing. But the difference was that he was referred to as Professor Malcolm Longair, and I was merely Athene Donald, with no title at all. Did the journalist – a woman herself – realise that she had done this or was it, as so often, completely unconscious? As a woman, indeed as the university’s gender equality champion, maybe she simply assumed I couldn’t be a serious academic, couldn’t be a professor and she hadn’t checked any further. But I had sent my comments by email so she had no excuse. My email signature spells out quite clearly that I am a professor. Indeed I had, most unusually for me, actually changed the signature to add in the fact I was a Dame – something I usually try to gloss over. So, it would appear she had simply made the assumption
and hence no title required (at least she hadn’t called me Miss; I suppose I should be grateful for small mercies).
This kind of unconscious putting-down is, I fear, prevalent in our society. It is deeply troubling to see it in action, and yet it is difficult to overcome for the very reason that it is unconscious. In this particular journalistic instance, it is of no consequence except as an illustration of how these things crop up all over the place. Other similarly irritating occasions will be familiar to many a professional woman who turns up somewhere unfamiliar only to be first cut dead and then be greeted with ‘oh I was expecting a man’ (this frequently happens to me when drivers pick me up from airports or stations waving their placards saying Professor Donald). Boring but unimportant.
Other instances of unconsciously ignoring or marking down an individual simply because they are female can be much more serious. The 1997 study of Swedish fellowship applications by Wenneras and Wold is frequently cited on this front. Examining how male and female applicants for postdoctoral fellowships were judged, it demonstrated that the playing field was anything but level. Other well known papers demonstrating similar subtle (or not-so-subtle) effects include a 1999 study of reviews of CV’s, when either a male or a female name was attached to the same CV. This study showed that both men and women scored the ‘male’ CVs more highly than the ‘female.’ In a totally different context it was shown that when auditions for orchestras were carried out blind, by placing the players behind a screen so that the judging panel couldn’t see if they were male or female, suddenly more women were successful in the auditions. This was also published in 1999.
However, it is possible that things have improved substantially since these papers were published at the end of the last century. As I cited previously, the Royal Society’s recent statistics actually show a marginally higher success rate for women fellowship applicants than for men. Recent work from the US by Ceci and Williams also suggests that the outcomes of the Swedish study may no longer apply. This same paper suggested that examination of studies about hiring processes, grant reviewing and journal refereeing all failed to show significant differences by gender. Is it possible that we have actually progressed beyond the obvious problems associated with unconscious bias? I am afraid I am not convinced that the world is quite that rosy.
It may indeed be the case that interview panels are much more aware of the issues, but it is still the case that judgements may be formed very fast, and be remarkably hard to overturn. A chilling, although I suspect statistically flawed study (the numbers were tiny) of mock job interviews showed just how much first impressions count: this might be anything from firmness of handshake, to body posture on the interview chair to – well, I suppose, is this what the interviewer thinks a new research fellow/professor or whatever should look like? Having been told in the not-so-distant past by a male colleague that my ‘turn would come’ when I applied to take on some role, despite the fact I was more senior (in age and status) than the alternative male applicant, signified to me I did not meet with his superficial expectations; it had nothing to do with my actual skills and experience. That is the danger if thought is not applied. And that is exactly the sort of thing my recent experience with the Cambridge News demonstrates. In that case it didn’t matter. Many times it may make the difference between career progression and stagnation, or even failure and dropping out.