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…..