More Than Just Gender

Last week I attended an evening at the Royal Society, badged as a discussion between Vince Cable and the RS President Paul Nurse on ‘UK Research: building bridges, building prosperity’. In fact it wasn’t really a discussion at all, so much as set speeches which contained no new policies just well chosen words. It also involved an introduction  by Adam Roberts, the British Academy President, and a third panellist Roland Aurich from Siemens (you can see the video of the event here). It was chaired by Robert Tooke, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, and for the Q+A they were joined by Adrian Smith on the platform. In other words, all the key players were men, as a tweet from Evan Harris towards the end of the meeting (apparently instigated by Martin Rees, the former President of the RS) made plain. Fellow OT blogger Jenny Rohn has written up her own thoughts on this here (with various comments from me too);  I won’t attempt to cover the same ground but to open up the debate a bit more.

I must confess I hadn’t noticed that the speakers were all male. I don’t know if this proves I am inured to such things, because physics meetings are so often male-dominated, or whether implicitly I just accepted the situation because people were speaking ‘ex officio’ as it were. However, when the tweet circulated, I still felt this was no big deal, partly because of this ex officio aspect, but also because the attendees were, by and large, established individuals rather than those setting out on a scientific career path who are still looking for inspiration and role models. Jenny disagrees with me about the importance of the male dominance here, and says others felt the same way as her, but if we are to worry about the diversity of speakers I feel there are other sorts of meetings where a white male slate would worry me far more. Conferences, for instance, where graduate students are much more likely to be present and who may gain negative impressions about how welcome they are.

However, there are two additional threads I want to draw out, one stemming from a broader meaning of diversity, one dealing with what, in general, may be done to improve the breadth of diversity at meetings etc. As I say, all the speakers were male, as were the 3 people who asked questions (time was very limited, so it was only 3). One of these questions came from Imran Khan, who doesn’t fit the ‘white male’ label. So, finally, a little diversity entered the debate, albeit in terms of ethnicity not gender. It was clear Imran had prepared his question in advance, and so one could ask if people like Jenny would have been more satisfied if he’d passed his question over to his deputy at CaSE, Beck Smith, who was also present. It would have ‘solved’ one problem, but reinforced the ‘science is for whites’ message instead. In other words, it wouldn’t have been a solution regarding diversity at all. Diversity is not simply about gender, although it’s perhaps too easy to forget that because the numbers of women setting out in science are large, and the leakage so manifest.  The numbers overall of those who don’t fit the ‘white male’ bill are depressingly low, as this incident makes very clear.

Last summer I participated in a panel debate organised by CaSE on Higher Education, at which the panel was challenged that science was too much a white, middle class affair and that problem started at school. Recognizing this huge problem, BIS has recently given money to the Royal Society to implement a programme of work to increase diversity in the scientific workforce. The programme focuses on the different diversity strands: gender, ethnicity, disability, and socio-economic status, and will be looking at the issues both within academia and industry.  I have heard the Shadow Innovation Minister, Chi Onwurah, publicly state she doesn’t feel the RS should be trusted with this when their record on diversity is bad. I disagree with her because my experience within Cambridge shows me that where the problems are less acute (for instance around gender in the Humanities) there is a tendency for complacency to set in and less rather than more is likely to be done. The RS is totally committed to doing what it can, because it knows there is a problem, but what it can do may be limited within this fairly short-lived programme with its very modest funds. Certainly when it comes to the socio-economic aspect, the problems start at a very early stage, with the dangers of poor schooling and possible lack of support for a would-be scientist from within the home. That sort of embedded, cultural problem cannot be solved by looking at the workforce, nor within a very modest programme, but it is hoped that at least some of the biggest barriers may be identified during the BIS-funded work, along with  possible interventions, even if the shortish timescale will not make it possible to pilot actions in practice. This may, one hopes, just be the start of an onging process to improve access to support, good teachers and good careers advice for those who are currently not getting it.  It’s unlikely to be sufficient in itself to transform the scientific workforce, but it should at least nudge things in the right direction and perhaps kickstart more substantial actions in the future. But we have to recognize that improving diversity within science means far more than worrying about the gender make-up of a panel, important though that is.

Which brings me to my second point. I believe growing out of the recent ESOF meeting in Dublin, a database  has been set up of women scientists within Europe (although a quick glance suggests this is a very incomplete list, heavily biased towards Germans, presumably due to the knowledge of those who have constructed it). I saw a tweet about this, and was asked to retweet it, which I did. And duly got hammered by a male physicist (who can identify himself if he wants) who said:

now that is truly appalling: why would anyone query such a database if not engaging in the worst kind of tokenism?

I proceeded to have a long twitter conversation with him – which is a tricky thing to do when covering subtle points in 140 characters – because I cannot agree. My arguments tie in with Jenny’s initial objection to the RS Panel discussion, but are much more fundamental than that. Tokenism is tiresome, often unpleasant for the token (probably female) concerned, but sometimes may be necessary in certain situations where a field may be still overwhelmingly uniform. In a comment on a previous post of mine, Curt Rice said targets on e.g committees, panels, conference speaker lists etc, was a better way of expressing it than in terms of quotas, and I would agree.  A long time ago I wrote a blogpost about Remembering the Women, itself sparked by an article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. groaning over how easy it still was to ‘forget’ women, as if they were invisible. She was discussing the problem in the context of the media rather than science, but the same thing applies. Having a database of women scientists, to facilitate making sure that conference organisers can’t use the excuse of ‘not being able to think of a woman’ as a reason for not including women on the programme, strikes me as a good idea. I am just as much in favour of having databases covering individuals who are within 10 years of their PhD, or listed by geographical region, or identifying those who work at the boundaries between disciplines. Anything that makes life easier to be broad-minded when seeking out individuals for some task or other seems to me a good idea. I cannot see that such databases are ‘appalling’, and am surprised that others would. The ideas about tokenism are, however, much more subtle than that and need much lengthier discussion. Another day, another blogpost…..


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8 Responses to More Than Just Gender

  1. Michael Merrifield says:

    Happy to identify myself as “appalled,” but of irrelevant gender (having heard both perspectives on this put by both sexes), and definitely not a physicist!

    Unfortunately not in a position to enter into protracted discussion, as seeking to redress some work-life balance at the moment.

    But, succinctly (if in a little more than 140 characters), my argument is that such databases risk tarnishing all women as being “only there because…” even in the many cases when they were chosen simply because they were the best person for the job. The effort put into creating such a database would be much better invested in investigating where women are underrepresented on non-gender-specific databases of expertise, and seeking to encourage more to put themselves forward, thus normalising the view that such a database should have nothing to do with gender, rather than perpetuating the idea that it should.

    • Kate Jeffery says:

      I think I agree – I think the database is well intentioned but it makes me uncomfortable to have women listed separately as if they are the “other sex” – it reinforces their genderedness, whereas what we really need is for women scientists to be seen as scientists rather than women.

      I do agree with Athene though that something needs to be done to make it easier to “think of women” when compiling a conference lineup or a panel discussion. Men just pop into mind more easily, partly because there are more of them. I’m not sure a list is the answer though – but jumping on event organisers who failed to think of enough women is a good start. That is why I think Jenny Rohn’s gripe is well justified. There may have been a good reason for having all men at the RS meeting, but the organisers should nevertheless be made to squirm afterwards. Then they’ll try harder next time 🙂

  2. Tokenism is bad, yes, that’s fairly easy to see. Unfortunately it’s nessecary to some extent as a stop-gap in the transition period where we want to increase “minority” groupings.

    For smaller groups it can be hard even to find other people in the same boat (eg. I’m currently trying to find other arthritic biologists), such a list would be useful even for members of the list more than conference organisers. For larger groups such as women, it’s still good to have a list of people who share similar experiences (see events such as Girl Geek Dinners) who you can talk to and whose visibility can be increased.

    As regards keeping a handy list for conference organisers (and also media people who might want new people for interview), it is very useful for this transition period where many women are not yet visible, and should (hopefully) become less useful as more women become apparent.

  3. European scientist says:

    I saw that list too, and I immediately had a look in order to get an idea who the leading ladies were in the countries I had worked in; there is a huge difference in the number of women colleagues I encountered, and I think that was representative, but I wanted to check. Maybe I had missed some? But given that it’s an overwhelmingly German database, and I have never worked in Germany, that didn’t work. I do think that the difference between countries is based largely on their parental leave laws and organisation of child care; in the UK and the Netherlands, parental leave is short and childcare is expensive, as far as I know. Being the one that does any giving birth and breastfeeding involved, the woman is likely to use all leave up, and then some, in case of having children. And that will hurt a career. I never knew a female professor in science in the Netherlands, and I struggle to think of one in the UK.

    In Norway you get an entire year of parental leave; it’s not unusual for the man and woman to split that equally. Employers seem to have accepted that hiring young people may mean losing them for a while, whatever their gender. And after that entire year there is good child care; no need to stay home longer. And in Norway there were loads of high-ranking female scientists.

    I think demanding of conference organisers to invite female speakers is window-dressing; a conference should have the most relevant people. And in a country where there large majority of relevant people in a certain field is male, you’ll get male conferences. If you want to change that you have to start at the root. And I think a more generous system of paternity leave and better childcare would pay itself off; think of all the tax money all these successful women in Norway bring in! And the British and Dutch women could do the same. Unfortunately, these don’t seem to be the times in which governments are keen on changes that will only pay off after the next elections. If there ever were any…

  4. UK scientist on academia-net says:

    I was asked to put a listing on academia-net and thought about it for a while, and whether it was going to just add to more tokenism (I’m working on the physics/engineering border, in the UK, and was asked to join because of an ERC grant). I decided to go for it to help with the ‘not able to think of a woman’ scenario – I decided, if there was a list, then it could just be an aid in remembering. So far I’ve only had one contact, about a position at a German university, but we’ll see what happens!

  5. Ursula Martin says:

    I’m inclined to think that nagging is more effective than a database – I have been on numerous databases over the years, set up with the best of intentions no doubt, but not sure which are still extant, and I am fairly certain the invitations I get have always come from visibility through other routes. If organisers remember to “think of inviting a woman” in the first place, they will probably be able to think of someone without recourse to a database!

    I have been involved in a number of campaigns to persuade conferences that have not had a tradition of women speakers to improve matters. The trick that seemed to work is to get a few senior people, male and female, involved in writing to the organisers, and to keep up the pressure for a few years as such events have a hopeless collective memory!

    It is fairly easy to generate and reuse a form letter with half a dozen possible names along the lines of “dear … ,… saddened to see that yet again there were no female speakers at …. data shows that the gender balance in our field is 70/30 male/female and it would be good for the prestigious xx conference to be able to reflect that … among names you might like to think about in future are … aa bb, winner of the xxx; cc dd, holder of an ERC fellowship; …. “

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      I entirely agree, but would go a little further and say that in addition to keeping up the pressure when standards of equality are not met, it is inappropriate to highlight and celebrate when they are. Expressing satisfaction that women are well- or even over-represented on a particular platform sends a message that the organisers have somehow done well in meeting what should be a basic expectation, and serves to perpetuate the notion that recognizing scientists on the basis of merit rather than gender is exceptional rather than an appropriate norm.

      • Unfortunately too often invited speakers are invited on the grounds that they have been invited to speak at other conferences before! How many times have you heard some Professor Bigwig give the same talk at conferences? It happens all the time, it is frustrating, sometimes boring if it’s exactly the same talk and it means that other people (men and women) of merit aren’t being invited. If you never get ‘spotted’ , however deserving, you can end up like the lines from Gray’s Elegy

        Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
        And waste its sweetness on the desert air

        So, nagging, databases or your preferred alternative method is still required to get diversity – whatever attributes you want to lump under that word (distribution in seniority, gender, geographical location, ethnicity etc). Would that merit alone be sufficient to ensure this happened.