Do All Male Shortlists Matter?

I was challenged to write on this topic through Twitter, after Times Higher Education ran a story about the task of finding a new President and Provost to replace Malcolm Grant at UCL.  The five names mentioned as ‘figures who might fit the bill’ were all male. An all male shortlist was also implied in the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh’s recent story on the next Government Chief Scientific Advisor, although it wasn’t clear whether this was the actual shortlist or just (as seems more likely) a guesstimate or even well-informed gossip on the part of the BBC; anyhow the implication was the names given were just part of the shortlist. Indeed, it would seem (more of this below), the head-hunters were still head-hunting at the time the list was posted on the web, so its absolute accuracy is certainly in question.

Nevertheless, it is the case, that two very high profile jobs are being talked about in the media in connection with male names only. Does this matter? Uta Frith, writing in the New Statesman in the wake of this year’s elections to the Royal Society with its disappointingly low number of women, said

An all-male list of candidates for the next chief scientist appeared on Twitter on 26 April. It immediately drew pointed comments. From now on, not including any woman in the lists of candidates for the top science jobs, or for fellow of the Royal Society and other prestigious prizes, will no longer be acceptable in polite society.

However, despite the fact that on the surface I entirely agree with this position and all those other commenters who have cried foul over these various recent occurrences, on reflection I think we have to be careful in jumping to conclusions; there may be extenuating circumstances that the published names obscure. Firstly, neither of these lists actually have any standing. We do not know, nor should we know, who are on the shortlist. Maybe there are women going to be interviewed, we can’t tell. However, I think things are more subtle than that.  In order to get on a shortlist for jobs like these, two separate things have to happen.

  1. The head hunters (or search committee, depending on the situation) have to come up with your name. On this front, my arguments are not dissimilar to those I advanced previously referring to this year’s Royal Society elections. I argued there that some of the problems stem from the fact that women may not be being nominated for election – their own communities may be overlooking them. Women are not infrequently somehow invisible and hence forgotten, as I’ve discussed in the past. This is a problem that needs to be thought about; anyone who is approached by head hunters to come up with suggestions for names should be very conscious of it and do what they can to ensure that first class individuals, who may not be the obvious ones and may come from a minority of some type (sub-discipline, gender, geography etc), are not omitted from consideration.
  2. The individual has to be attracted to the job sufficiently to allow their name to go forward.  Now, if you are a woman and the idea of being head of UCL or Chief Scientific Advisor fills you with no joy whatsoever, for whatever reason, you are not likely to let your name go forward just to ensure that there is some possibility of a female name making the shortlist. That would be an act of extreme altruism and why should any woman do that just so that people can feel honour has been satisfied? No man would feel ‘obliged’ to let their name go forward if they thought the job was unattractive, as I’m sure many may in these cases. Flattered to be asked, men and women alike may feel, but flattery is not sufficient to go for a major job if it doesn’t appeal.

However, one might want to ask whether women who aren’t keen for their names to go forward are unwilling simply because they are being timid: maybe they’re not convinced they’re up to the task, or perhaps uncertain about work-life balance or the need to relocate their families. In other words, they’re being wimpish and need encouragement. Well maybe yes and maybe no. Again who knows, but I find it hard to believe that a woman of the stature to be considered for these senior appointments is likely to be of the particularly wimpish variety. And I am certain the head hunters did approach women for the CSA post. (You will also note the new role of Chief Scientific Advisor to the European Commission is now occupied by Anne Glover, who was CSA for Scotland prior to her appointment. Proof positive that some  women may be interested enough to be appointed to such roles!)

I am, as I’ve said before, all in favour of positive action. Positive action means, in this case, trying as hard as you can to find diverse candidates. Once the Pallab Ghosh story came out on the BBC website it would seem the head hunters felt under some (even more?) pressure to find a woman,  possibly any woman, who would agree to go forward to be able to satisfy the critics. One senior – and retired – woman I know felt some annoyance at being approached by them at this point since she felt, not unreasonably, that being retired she wasn’t credible (or interested). It looked like cynical action on behalf of the head hunters. In the days of US affirmative action policies, underqualified women were sometimes offered – and took up – positions to their own and the company’s subsequent regret. Approaching non-credible women to satisfy some notional female ‘quota’ on a shortlist strikes me as no better.

So, before we pillory head hunters et al for being blind about names tossed around in contention for senior positions, we should be aware of what may be going on behind the scenes.  Unless head hunters suddenly decide to become universally transparent and name everyone who has been approached and their reasons for declining if they do so – which would be a catastrophe – we have to realise that while senior women remain in such small numbers, statistically it may be quite possible for none to appear on a shortlist, however diligent the search may have been. (The corollary to this is that where numbers aren’t small we most definitely should generally expect women to be on shortlists, for instance for lectureships or fellowships.) But, we should continue to apply pressure to ensure that that diligence is never missing, and continue to ask awkward questions when opportunities present themselves so that organisations know that laziness when it comes to seeking out minorities will not be tolerated.

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14 Responses to Do All Male Shortlists Matter?

  1. cromercrox says:

    There are many fewer Jews in this country than there are women. In fact, are probably fewer Jews in the UK than people who identify themselves as Afro-Caribbeans, of Pakistani descent, Poles, Latvians and so on. There are fewer Jews than people who identify themselves as Moslem or gay. It would be hard to find many minorities more minor than Jews. As you support greater awareness for the representation of minorities, do you think that headhunters should be mindful (in a positive way) about Jewishness?

  2. A scientist says:

    I think the point here is that women are not a minority, since they represent about 50% of the population.

  3. cromercrox says:

    Well, yes, but Professor Donald wrote quite clearly that ‘…we should continue to apply pressure to ensure that that diligence is never missing, and continue to ask awkward questions when opportunities present themselves so that organisations know that laziness when it comes to seeking out minorities will not be tolerated.’

  4. cromercrox says:

    I can’t help feeling that focusing on shortlists and quotas and proportionality is putting the cart before the horse, as well as being discriminatory and patronizing. Instead, we might ask why Jews have historically been wildly over-represented in the sciences and the professions generally, despite centuries of discrimination and brutal repression. Whereas it is true hat women in all societies have been unjustly denied access to the kind of education that men have enjoyed as of right, it has never been the case that women have been summarily removed from entire countries simply because they were women, or shot just for existing.

    What does this mean? Does it suggest that women might achieve better represntation in the sciences if discrimination is made even worse? Of course not.

    What it suggests is that it might be profitable to discover what it is about Jewish society and education that prredisposes Jews to be overrepresented in sciences and the professions, and adjust our education system accordingly.

    • OK, I’ll bite, Henry. What do you think are the reasons? Possibly worth a separate post?

      And can we include chess too? – see this old discussion.

      • cromercrox says:

        No idea, Austin. Here are some thoughts, however.

        Athene and others are concerned that discrimination, however covert or slight, might prevent women achieving their potential. How is it, then, that the Jews can number a produce a disproportionate number of Nobelists despite massive, overt and brutal discrimination? Something must be Up.

        I suspect that it is a long tradition of literacy, learning and formal argument based on the Talmud. In traditional Jewish societies, as most others, education was an exclusively male preserve. We don’t have to adopt that part, thank goodness – however, there might be some benefit in gender-segregated education.

        It’s in the crucial teenage years that people make their choices. I have two daughters: Crox Minor (14) and Crox Minima (12). Crox Minor loves science and wants to go into medicine. Crox Minima in contrast has a flair for art and design. They are as chalk and cheese. Both, however, say that their learning is continually interrupted by the disruption caused by boys in the classroom. There might be a moral here somewhere.

  5. Ursula Martin says:

    For substantial discussions on the selection of Vice Chancellors see the piece by Glynis Breakwell, The Characteristics, Roles and Selection of Vice-Chancellors, available at
    and also the paper by Amanda Goodall, How Do Leaders Get Selected?

    As well as highlighting, as Athene does above, the role of headhunters, they also flag the importance of university governing bodies, who will in general not be academics, in choosing Vice-Chanellors.

  6. Ursula Martin says:

    Congratulations on a good article in the Observer today – the level of comments in the online version shows just what we are up against in blogland beyond the civilised environment of Occams Typewriter!

  7. Thanks Ursula for your kind words about the Observer article. It has highlighted some things for me about journalism I hadn’t appreciated before – and maybe I’ll write up these thoughts sometime soonish.

    Henry, one of the things about women as compared with Jews, in our present culture (and in the past things were different for both groups, minority or not and I’m not going to try to discuss things historically), is it is in general harder to hide your sex than your religion. Hence it is probably currently easier to discriminate – if so inclined – against women. Having been at a school with around 30% Jews I really simply don’t notice them (/you) as being different or unusual in every day life – unless someone brings it to my attention. Nor do monitoring forms expect you to state your religion, as opposed to ethnicity (you mention Pakistani’s above, for instance, who might self-identify on forms), gender or sexual preference. Bizarrely, since I’m happily married and don’t expect to be discriminated against on that front, it is that last that I find most intrusive when asked to specify, although I’ve never encountered a form that didn’t allow me to say I won’t answer. Maybe they’ll invent web forms that require it for submission one day…..But in science in particular, I think Jews have flourished, probably because intellect rather than religion has long been valued by the scientific community, and education itself has been nurtured by the Jewish community as you say – at least for men. Fellow blogger Steve Caplan’s post on what is happening is Israel now do not make for happy reading about Jewish women there, however.

  8. Glyco says:

    In my opinion as a young scientist, this has two main causes:

    1) The ‘old guard’ are male. As a simple product of the society of the time at which these eminent (read: elderly) scientists were trained, men were far more likely than women to become scientists. Therefore more of the current top scientists are men, making all-male shortlists likely in these cases.

    There is nothing we can do about this – it is a product of a different time.

    2) The system by which scientists graduate from their PhDs, move on to post-doctoral positions and become faculty (and subsequently the lucky few become leaders in their field and may be considered for this kind of position) is flawed. For a decade or so, women have been coming through the system in greater numbers – for example, currently in my scientific field (a subsect of chemistry) there are a greater number of female PhD students than male. This is becoming more frequent.

    Unfortunately there is a fractionation effect further up the chain at the post-doc level, leading to more men than women filtering through to higher level positions. Essentially, these consist of a series of temporary contracts (some as short as a year) in a high-pressure working environment, often in a laboratory. Since the quality/quantity of your work during these short contracts determines your ability to find your next position in a competitive field, long maternity leave would be ill-advised and difficult. As lab work is often impossible during pregnancy due to the chemicals used and since these years of post-docs coincide with the years that a woman experiences her highest fertility (before potentially achieving a faculty position at 35-45, depending on how good/lucky they are), this can lead to women dropping out and going into more family-friendly careers. Quite apart from the issue of childcare and the level of support from your spouse, this is clearly a problem.

    There is data behind this controversial assertion ( There’s a paywall in front of the original article, so this is a news/analysis piece.

    • Glyco says:

      My point being, fix the latter and in 40 years people will be wondering if we should have a quota for men on our scientific shortlists…

  9. Margaret Jensen says:

    I wonder, are there any scientific fields or subfields, or any other category we might like to use a labelling convenience, where a short list would be comprised of ONLY women?

    It is also equally sad that having come so far, we are still hearing that motherhood is a legitimate reason (according to some, apparently) for women to not be considered for advancement. I believe that most of us consider the role of father to be just as important and potentially as time consuming as that of mother. Were any on the short list “dads” or “grandads”, I wonder?

    ….and lastly, surely not every work environment in science is toxic to a pregnant female? (Wouldn’t it be toxic on some degree to any human? Have there been any studies on the impact of proximity to these same toxins on the quality of the sperm from males working in a similar envornment?) Or can higher positions only be filled by those who have worked with the most toxic substances that science can provide? Is this now a pre-requisite?

    Some very strange trains of thought seem at work here.

  10. TBW says:

    I am a 33 year old man and would like to raise a view based on my own experience. I have worked in the finance sector, the civil service, the military and now engineering. I have consistently come across gender discrimination in all of these except the civil service. However, this discrimination has always been anti-male and pro-female. In the case of the military, the double standards applied to favour women ahead of men were eye-watering. It seems to be caused by a combination of excessive political correctness and fear of complaints of discrimination from women.

    I have noticed a side effect. Many of the women (not all – it’s not possible to generalise) who benefit from this discrimination become lazy. I am talking about my peers here, i.e. women in their twenties and early thirties. As a result, after a time of benefiting from discrimination, they can become so uncompetitive that their male colleagues, who have received a much tougher ride, are able to overcome the discrimination and ultimately rise to the top.

    The point is this. For both men and women to achieve their potential, it is essential that they be treated equally and assessed on merit. Giving preferential treatment to women is just as senseless as discriminating against them. Putting a woman on a shortlist for a prestigious job or prize just because she is a woman is both sexist and counter-productive.

  11. Margaret Jensen says:

    Exactly! And that was really the point I was trying to make. It should be the ability to do the job not gender, nor any other form of adverse discriminaiton, that places anyone on any “short list”. The road leading to the point where one makes it onto a short list (of the senior/leadership role that started this string) has been paved with years of covert discrimination made with the “best interests” of women as its basis. Those making decisions with this core belief are still part of the system and will be for many years to come – and are typically at the senior levels where decisons are made for placement of individuals into higher level positions.

    In 2011, only 12 of the Fortune 500 companies were led by women. Is it really likely that women are not capable of this role?

    The breaking down of barriers (or even the reverse discrimination that TBW appears to be experiencing) has a long way to go yet in evening out the playing field. Many of us who would have liked perhaps to have been able to follow a career path that led to the opportunity to be considered now for a leadership position were stymied in that goal immediately after graduation. My first degree is in Geology. When I graduated I found that openings for my fellows were in mining or oil or similar fields – and for some reason (!) exploration companies did not want to hire a female and place her out in the wilderness with a bunch of guys. It was stated very clearly to me in their hiring literature and in person that field exploration was not on the table. And it was also very clear that field experience was considered the entry level position for anyone who wanted to climb. Hopefully that has changed now, but I hit that glass ceiling, or brick wall, right out of the starting gate. I was the only female in my graduating class and was forced to take up teaching if I wanted to stay associated with my chosen science.

    I sympathize with TBW and his experiences (welcome to my world) but I suspect that what he is experiencing is an effort to bring the % representation of all ranks into par with the % breakdown of the overall population. If 50% of the population is female, then logic would suggest that all things being equal, 50% of every rank should/could be populated by women unless there are overwhelming physical/intellectual requirements that preclude that degree of representation. Selection from a broadly based pool allows for upward selection to be based on merit – not gender – but there is therefore the necessity of at least getting enough of both sexes to apply to the initial selection intake before the selection based on merit can begin, let alone run smoothly.

    I hope that the generations of women following mine has a better chance of making it to the top – time will tell.

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