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.