As readers will know, improving the situation for women in science is dear to my heart. One of the roles in which I’ve been able to make some sort of a contribution has been through chairing the Athena Forum. This group was set up in 2008 as a successor to the Athena Project, which kickstarted the whole Athena Swan process. The Athena Forum in its current incarnation no longer has direct links with the Athena Swan process, which is now overseen by the Equality Challenge Unit, but it still maintains the same ethos and motivation. Its mission is stated as
to provide a strategic oversight of developments that seek to, or have proven to, advance the career progression and representation of women in science, technology, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) in UK higher education.
Last week saw me step down as chair of the Athena Forum, which I have chaired since 2009. More than time for a new broom and I have passed the baton (or perhaps that should also be broom) on to Ottoline Leyser, whose wonderful booklet Mothers in Science: 64 Ways to Have it All she produced when she won the Rosalind Franklin award in 2007. I am quite sure that she will do a wonderful job as Chair and continue to move the agenda forward.
As many will know, last week also saw the announcement of the latest batch of Athena Swan awards and it is encouraging to note that more and more universities are signing up and departments winning awards. However, this is not an ‘if you enter you win‘ competition and, hidden beneath the successes there are departments (possibly even universities) that are failing in their applications. This has to be a good thing, in one sense since it means that securing an award really does indicate that an institution is embracing change.
Despite the progress that has been made, despite all the Athena Swan applicants that have been successful, there is no doubt there is still a need for such an organisation to maintain pressure on funders and universities alike. The very fact that some departments and universities have, in various rounds, lost their awards shows that progress is not yet deeply ingrained everywhere and organisations that think they can get by simply by ticking boxes and then never thinking about the matter again need to think again. However it is nevertheless the case that improvelents are being made. It may be frustratingly slow, there may be all kinds of endemic problems in our society way beyond the higher education sector that are likely to continue to prove intractable (gender segregation of toys, low aspirations from teachers and parents alike when it comes to girls doing science and lack of role models being some obvious ones for school children, putting them off from ever starting on the STEM career path) but, reading a legacy report of the original Athena Project for my last Forum meeting does highlight that there is visible progress. The report will go up on the web in due course, but it needs more polishing yet.
After the Athena Forum committee meeting there was a workshop hosted by them at the Royal Society to which a number of funders came to discuss the ongoing issues and the extent to which they can influence change. In some instances there may be easy wins. One might think of the RCUK statement in this light, in so far as it is now a very obvious stick with which organisations can in principle be beaten. I daresay in practice it was a non-trivial task to find a form of words all research councils could agree to as with any political communiqué. In other situations it may be much harder for funders to effect change in institutions when it is individuals that they actually fund. They also need to make sure that their own practices are as excellent as they can be for their own internal employees and the committees (from Research Council councils down) that they run. Data is currently being collected as a follow-up to the previous Report on Good Practice by UK Research Funders to see how far things have moved in general on this front.
Sarah Dickinson from Athena Swan gave a presentation at this workshop, passing on some tips from her experience of submissions and some analysis of success rates. The organisation is currently running a pilot both for Research Council Institutes and, more recently, for non-STEM departments. All this means that the impacts delivered by Athena Swan should be starting to impact soon on other disciplines where, as my recent foray into Philosophy departments has revealed, all is very much not well.
However let me conclude with a few random questions that were raised in my mind at the workshop and from reading recent media stories. I’d be interested to hear people’s views because these are very much not black and white issues.
1 Sarah Dickinson said that a Head of Department sending emails late at night sends the wrong message because it implies everyone else should also be working late at night. While I understand why this could be interpreted this way, it also seems to me that one of the joys of academia is that one has a lot of flexibility about when one chooses to work. If it suits someone to leave work mid-afternoon to go and pick up the kids and then spend the evening with them, but go back to work once they’re in bed, that strikes me as perfectly reasonable. I remember once expressing concern about a grant administrator who was sending me late night emails and they pointed out that that was the way they chose to work for this very reason. Clearly no head of department should expect or require anyone to work at what would normally be described as antisocial hours, but if they choose to do so then that should be fine (and of course it may be the head of department whose work pattern is as I’ve described above). What do people think about Sarah’s statement?
2 For women about to go on maternity leave what assumptions should one make? I had always thought the correct assumption was that they would do nothing unless one was told otherwise – it should be entirely their choice – but managed to cause grave offence by taking this line recently. I have certainly known women who have absolutely held to the line that their research group can just get by on their own for the full period of their leave without any contact from the PI. I can’t imagine that I would have felt comfortable doing that for a year. Indeed I didn’t: I continued to see my students and read their work during my 3-4 months of leave, but the choice has to be the individual woman’s. Nevertheless it took me completely by surprise so to upset someone by starting from a position of assuming nothing. How do others approach this?
3 From the press I came across a story about ‘mumpreneurs‘, women who set up businesses from home whilst looking after their family. Clearly what they are doing is impressive, but does a new word really have to be invented for this, which is so clearly gendered? Entrepreneurs is a perfectly good ungendered word, unlike so many words in our language, so why create a new one? I can understand that individuals might want to stress their entrepreneurial activities were home-based rather than run out of an office, but how about ‘entrepreneur-from-home’ which remains entirely gender-neutral? After all, perhaps it’s the dad who stays at home (particularly with the new paternity laws) so why specify which parent is involved? Is it relevant to the business plan?
So, answers please to this rather random set of questions!