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.
- 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.
- 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.