Is Helping Women such a Bad Thing to Do?

I am not infrequently asked to give talks at other universities about gender issues, including the work we are doing in Cambridge. (Strangely, I find myself doing quite as many of these sorts of talks as physics ones.) I would like to think that talking about our local work can help to inform and encourage others to find their own appropriate solutions to the specific issues their institution is facing; such talks are more likely to lead to successful outcomes if senior management is present; ideally even the VC, as was the case when I spoke at Leeds  over a year ago and at UEA more recently. During such talks it is only too easy to highlight problems, invoking the phrase ‘leaky pipeline’ that annoys some people (see here) but which is an accurate description in terms of pure numbers.

Sometimes people ask me if it’s good to focus on the downside, to point out that there are difficulties (which may include anything from bullying and invisibility to childcare). I appreciate there is a danger in being too negative but it seems to me that it is important to let people who are facing up to these issues to know it isn’t ‘just them’. If you are feeling isolated and in a minority it is too easy to assume that bullying is somehow your fault or that everyone else manages to self-promote and you are failing and seem destined to remain invisible below the parapet.  So I think on balance it is helpful to be upfront about the difficulties women may face in the academic workplace whilst simultaneously challenging the leadership to work to improve the local culture.

This is one of the interesting tensions around gender equality. A range of paradoxes were exposed in a recent article by Marieke Van den Brink and Lineke Stobbe ‘The support paradox: Overcoming dilemmas in gender equality programs’, an analysis of a Dutch support programme for women in physics. They deliberately choose the word ‘paradox’ to highlight the fact that there are two sides to the case for interventionist policies and an individual can subscribe to both sides simultaneously without really being aware of it. So, should there be interventions to encourage women to apply – for funding, jobs, promotion or whatever? At one level this looks straightforward enough, but if it is perceived as giving an unfair advantage to the women, or representing ‘reverse discrimination’ then it can lead to something of a backlash. Worst of all is if the women concerned end up feeling they only got that job ‘because they were a woman‘, even though positive discrimination (which would apply if that were the case) and positive action (which the original intervention amounts to) are very different, with the former being illegal in the UK. I would strongly recommend reading this article because it articulates so clearly the two-sided nature of the argument around actions in this arena.

A curious narrative on a very dramatic interventionist policy was recently written up in the New York Times . This article described what could be regarded as a very large scale experiment at Harvard Business School in an attempt to even the playing field for men and women. It clearly was received with very mixed emotions by both sexes and yet,  by tackling a whole range of perceived issues, at the end of the day both men and women seemed to see some positives even if they didn’t like how they’d got there. It appears to have been a complete root and branch attack upon their teaching methods: as one example instructors were told to make sure men didn’t get all the air time in class, but simultaneously assessment based on performance during classes was downplayed.  I must say a description of a ‘class’ environment which could be described as follows:

‘that Harvard was worse than any trading floor, with first-year students divided into sections that took all their classes together and often developed the overheated dynamics of reality shows.’

sounds very unappealing  Women at Harvard seem to have been judged on looks as much as brains by their peers and treated accordingly.  That does not sound like a genuine meritocracy, although it may be an accurate reflection of how some major companies’ management operates – for which a Harvard MBA is such an important defining feature.

Since most people seem to think that the current state of play – for women in science, business or wherever – needs to change without liking some of the steps introduced to equalise opportunities for men and women, what is the best way forward? The Dutch research highlights the fact that interventionist policies towards women’s progression only look out of place and flying in the face of pure meritocracy, by shining the spotlight on actions that when it comes to men are, in general, normative and consequently invisible. The structures of society in general take ‘support’, broadly defined, for men so much in their stride they may simply not be apparent. No one suggests that men don’t proffer support/encouragement to other men in the normal way of things, but since it may not readily happen in a below-the-radar-but-systematic way for women in any particular organisation, intervention is required to ensure everybody benefits equally.

As one postdoc in the Dutch study expressed it

My conviction is that there are men who have structural advantages because they are men. That is indeed the “old boys’ network”, or that daddy does them a favor, (…) Well, they also don’t have sleepless nights worrying that “the woman was actually better, but they hired me.” (…) Some have advantages because they are men, so if I have advantages because I am a woman, I think, “fine.”

And as the article’s own conclusions states

It is therefore advisable to engage in critical reflection on the dominant discourse of meritocracy, the socially constructed nature of “quality”, and the silence about men’s support networks.

Put in that light, specific actions are no longer seen as flying in the face of meritocracy being the sole criterion; rather it is (as one would want) making sure that meritocracy and not luck as influenced by gender really is the only determinant.

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6 Responses to Is Helping Women such a Bad Thing to Do?

  1. Kate Jeffery says:

    Helping women advance their scientific careers is a subject dear to my heart, but the support paradox has always bothered me because I am uneasy about providing support only to people of a particular gender. On the one hand, I think discussion groups and mentoring programmes aimed specifically at women are fine – those are innocuous, and help to redress the imbalance in networking opportunities that currently favours men. On the other hand, positive actions such as preferentially hiring women (*because* they are women and we need more women) seems wrong.

    I would prefer to see gender-blind programmes that target groups of people in which women are currently overrepresented – that is, indirect positive action. For example, funding schemes specifically aimed at people with childcare responsibilities. That would be fair to both men and women, but would indirectly favour women because they currently do more childcare. When it comes to hiring, I think you need to hire the best applicant regardless of how badly you need women. That said, we can do more to make sure women do not feel *discouraged* from applying.

    So, I guess I think “helping women” is fine – good, even – but “specifically favouring women over equally qualified and able men” isn’t (in my view).

    • Zuska says:

      Ah, yes, but how does one decide who is the “best” applicant? And can that decision be arrived at apart from the set of prejudices and biases we all carry in regard to gender? It is amply demonstrated that the exact same credentials are evaluated much more favorably when a man’s name is attached than when submitted with a woman’s name. It is well known that hiring committees who come up with an all-male list, if asked to look a second time at a pile of resumes with specific instructions to see whether or not there might just be some qualified women, quite often “discover” qualified candidates they just didn’t “see” the first time around. Sometimes the newly discovered women are even better qualified than the men chosen in the first round! It is a mystery to the hiring committee how they missed them in the first go-round!

      And who gets to set the markers for what makes a candidate best? Too often the “best” candidate is determined to be simply “one who looks an awful lot like us”, us being the ones doing the hiring, an already very homogeneous group. It is naive to pretend that all, or even most, hiring decisions are made in a completely objective, non-biased manner based purely on some abstract notion of merit that is completely unaffected by our biases about gender, race, and age, among other factors. Unless a hiring committee does a lot of work BEFORE the hiring process begins to set up procedures and practices to actively work against built in biases, it is highly unlikely that “merit” will be the sole factor guiding decision making, or that the “best” candidate will be recruited, let alone hired.

    • GMP says:

      Seconding what Zuska said. It’s really stunning how flexible the notion of “the best” actually is. It’s really very, very far from an exact science. There are many people in any good job search who could be successful. It boils down to whom the committee likes, the ever elusive “fit”. A hot commodity candidate from last year left my department pretty unimpressed; we hired an excellent one who for some reason didn’t seem quite as “hot” to others (mostly based on pedigree). There was also quite a bit of argument on that search cte about an excellent female candidate, whom one male colleague referred to as “not being a real candidate”, meaning if we didn’t have to pay attention to women per se of course we would not look at her. And he said that in earnest on a committee that I chaired (you bet he got an earful from me). The university actually organized a really nice workshop for hiring cte members, where it was very convincingly presented how to be sensitive to own implicit biases, how people write letters differently for women and men, how people interpret differently the same bullets on male and female CVs, etc. I was quite disillusioned by how many of my male colleagues who attended actually refused to engage and experienced the whole event as a necessary but entirely pointless evil. And these are actually pretty good guys who treat me with respect and I generally feel supported and appreciated in my department; I don’t think any of them really think of themselves as anything but enlightened.

      The point is most men don’t intentionally do these things but they do them nonetheless, which doesn’t make them any less disheartening and frustrating to women. So what the postdoc above says — if every once in a blue moon things go in your favor because you are a woman, say thanks to providence and grab it with both hands.

  2. I quite agree about the definition of ‘best’ being very elastic, as I’ve often written about before under different circumstances (for instance here). We appear all to be conditioned to react in different ways to reading male and female names at the top of a CV, and there is no point pretending it is only men who do this (see here). It is also only too true that it is easy to look for clones of ourselves. Organisations have to confront all these things and my belief is that what makes the difference between mere formulaic compliance, as GMP describes, and a real shift in culture is the way those at the top respond to the issues. I have always, as in these posts and as in earlier ones, stressed the importance of everyone from the VC down buying into these matters and acting them out. Sometimes the well-intentioned are as bad as those who have no awareness at all, simply because they have come to believe unconscious bias is an issue they’ve got knocked. I doubt that any of us have.

  3. Laura says:

    The problem with putting your thumb on the scale is that becomes very hard to take it off again.

    It’s almost always possible to define some intervention to improve a particular target metric (say, student admissions or staff recruiting). The problem is that when that doesn’t improve some downstream metric (like exam results or impact factor), there’s pressure to define yet another intervention to somehow compensate for that metric, etc, etc.

    The unfortunate result is a system that is different, but in many ways no less arbitrary and opaque, than it was 100 years ago… I would personally like to see a much greater emphasis on increasing transparency and on improved statistical analysis to better predict and evaluate performance.

  4. Athene: You say, “Sometimes the well-intentioned are as bad as those who have no awareness at all, simply because they have come to believe unconscious bias is an issue they’ve got knocked. I doubt that any of us have.”

    Beautifully put and completely true. Many of us make the mistake of thinking that we now have a level playing field because our departments are mostly free of blatantly sexist bozos. But as you say, we are not able to evaluate applications or student work objectively. We need to take that as a given and figure out where to go from there.