On being Feisty and Unconventional

Women in science seem to fare less well than men based on practically any measure. The reasons for this are many and various; they are also much discussed yet progress remains slow. To take as a specific example, why are success rates for women applying to the ERC for grants – at all levels and in all domains – lower than for men?  This question was at the heart of the recent ERC Gender Workshop organised by their Gender Balance Working Group, of which I am a member. Many familiar arguments were rehearsed, some new insights were put on the record (and some preconceptions put to rest) and there were some interesting discussions had, both formally and informally. I am sure Isabelle Vernos, the chair of the working group, will be looking to take the ideas that emerged forward for further consideration and equally that some sort of report will be published in due course. In the meantime, this post will consider some further matters I was not able to cover in my first rapid write-up earlier this week.

First, let’s look at one of the well-known ‘facts’ concerning how well the Scandinavian countries look after their women.  The graph below superposes the proportion of women present in the top ranks of scientists in each EU nation and the percentage of ERC Advanced Grants won by women in the same countries. Far from Scandinavia doing well by this measure, despite their success in keeping women in the scientific workforce it can be seen that this is not matched by equal success in winning grants. Why this might be so is a question for Norway and Sweden to consider. Each country may have different reasons underlying how well they do by these metrics but, speaking parochially I was pleased to see the UK’s figures showing that, however miserable the figures of senior women may be in our universities, they are at least performing in line with these numbers.  One outcome of the workshop that might be very positive would be if each country (and its funders) examined its own local practices to see what is good and what is bad, and if those that are doing rather badly in the graph could learn from those that are doing better.

ERC Ad Grant gender by country

To continue with the Scandinavian theme let me turn to the words of the first speaker at the workshop, Curt Rice, a well-known writer about these issues and former Vice Rector at Trømso University. He stressed, as I have done previously, the importance of clear commitment from the top leadership if culture is really to change and, as he pointed out, individual actions will have no long-term effect without such a commitment. You can read his full notes here.  But I would also like to highlight a remark he made, possibly somewhat flippantly, over dinner the night before the workshop. It may not have been meant to be taken totally at face value but I think it has a very significant (and rather frightening) element of truth in it.

Put a single woman in a group of men, he said, and she will feel uncomfortable and awkward. All the women present nodded in agreement. Put a single man in a group of women – as he himself was at that point, which was why the comment arose – and he will feel in charge. The jaws of myself and the other women who heard that remark dropped. It sounded all too plausible. It absolutely ties in with the sorts of studies Virginia Valian covers in her book Why So Slow?  This ‘natural pecking order’ is instilled in so many of us. There are few women who would react as Curt appears naturally to do when in a minority of one, with the possible exception of those well-known female chemists Maggie Thatcher and Angela Merkel. And, for those of us who work in male-dominated fields, this difference in comfort level is likely to affect the way we come across, network or get our voices heard. No one has to make the slightest negative remark or indicate that that lone woman is a lesser being for us unconsciously apparently to feel that way. Culturally that just seems to be how we are brought up. Maybe simply by recognizing that fact we can gain some strength and inner conviction. It is not a sentiment I have ever heard expressed before. I will bear it in mind in the future.

Let me return to the workshop itself. I will highlight remarks from just two more of the talks, which relate to the two adjectives in the title of this post. Teresa Rees, a psychologist and PVC from Cardiff University, was talking (in the light of her many contributions to the Leadership Foundation) about what can make a difference for the next generation. She highlighted their new Aurora Leadership programme specifically designed for women (and which my own university is certainly sponsoring women to attend) as a way of creating a new cohort of ‘feisty women’. Much though I appreciate that sentiment it makes me nervous. The evidence is that women who are feisty and push, for instance by asking for a pay rise, can suffer in a way a man doing exactly the same thing does not. In other words, and as a recent article  put it, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Being feisty can come at a price, or it seems to do so currently, although that should not stop us either asking for our due or speaking up wherever and whenever. However, just bringing out the inner feistiness without developing other skills may not achieve what one would hope.

Maybe if there were more males engaged in gender issues this statement about being damned either way might no longer be true.  The men might recognize the double standards implied by such situations. The relative absence of men at the ERC event, both on the platform and in the audience was remarked upon by Alison Woodward as she summed up at the end of the workshop. In fact nearly all the men present were, I’m pleased to say, members of the Scientific Council, demonstrating their own commitment to addressing these issues.

What about the ‘unconventional’ in the title? This adjective refers to the way applicants to the ERC can write up their CVs.  If, instead of simply progressing linearly from PhD to postdoc to fellow or faculty, an individual has taken some time out  – this could be  a period out of academic science for any of a wide variety of reasons including maternity or paternity leave, other caring responsibilities or a spell in some completely different profession – then this can be described in the applicaton. However, whereas a couple of years in full time training for the Olympics might indeed be seen as ‘unconventional’, personally I don’t feel that a spell at home with a new baby should be described in this way. I think this should be seen as entirely conventional, even if not what everyone does. So, for me, I would hope that it might be possible to rebadge this important aspect of how the track record of applicants is described.

Claarte Vinkenburg, who is leading an ERC study into the careers of applicants (successful and otherwise) that I mentioned before has been highlighting the possible ‘stigma’ attached to those who wish to claim their lives have been affected by issues such as child-bearing. I fear that labelling such as ‘unconventional’ is only likely to increase their fear.  In her talk to the workshop she raised other related issues, notably how it is all too easy to construct a mental image of the ‘ideal’ scientist as someone who has never done anything else, who has no outside interests let alone a family life and who is solely driven by their work. We may know people like this; we may or may not find them interesting people. But I am quite sure we, in this case the ERC, should not feel these are the only ones worthy of our support.

Once preference for such an ‘ideal’ starts to translate into the unconscious thought ‘anyone who deviates from such an ideal should not get funded’, not only are we being prejudiced we are most certainly not likely to end up funding the best science we can. Whether we need to do more to raise awareness of how this subtle idea of a totally-committed and otherwise unencumbered researcher may permeate our thinking I’m not sure, but we certainly should ensure that anyone who doesn’t fit this pattern is not disadvantaged.

As you can tell, the workshop provided much food for thought. The challenge for the working group and the whole Scientific Council is whether we can find actions that may, for instance, help to mitigate the unconscious bias that lurks within us all or whether the knowledge is insufficient to enable us to reach a satisfactory position where excellence really is the only criterion for funding.

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7 Responses to On being Feisty and Unconventional

  1. Kate Jeffery says:

    Being feisty and unconventional is all very well, but as you say, women are penalised for those things: a feisty woman is likely to be disliked (and women rate being liked as more important to them than men do); and a woman who makes say, an unconventional proposal in a grant application is more likely to be doubted. Virginia Valian’s excellent but depressing book paints a grim picture of this bias. So does Adrian Furnham’s research showing that people of both genders underestimate female relative to male intelligence. Generally, women are expected to provide a higher standard of proof of their excellence than men are.

    One thing that would help would be to anonymise applications, but it’s hard to see how to do that when track record, which is not anonymous, is important. But maybe we should anonymise in the early stages, when the pure scientific merits of the proposal can be examined in isolation and before issues like feasibiility are considered. And encourage future parents to give their kids gender-ambiguous names!

    One other thing that bothers me is the gender balance of the decision-makers. I have developed the belief over the years, unsupported by much evidence admittedly, that women are attracted by different kinds of scientific problems: specifically, that women are more comfortable with and interested in complexity, which is why they gravitate to biology, and – within that – to psychology and social science. The complex (also called, perhaps not coincidentally, “soft”) sciences tend to be underweighted in esteem and prestige by a mostly male scientific community, as evidence by the lower impact factors of publications in these areas. It would be good to know that panels and, indeed, individual reviewers, were gender balanced, even if the applicant pool is not (yet).

    • The ERC has looked at the effect of the make-up of panels and have seen it makes no difference to the success rate for women. I wrote about this in an earlier post. That at least in part answers your query in the last paragraph.

  2. Great post. I am glad to hear people acknowledging the penalty that women pay for asking for things. This fact was acknowledged in books like “Women don’t ask” but underemphasized. However, a large part of that penalty is a social one- people dislike their female colleagues when they ask for things, even when those are clearly deserved. A remedy for this aspect of the problem is to prepare women better: tell them that even when the negotiate successfully, the people on the other side of the table will be pissed off. I had totally the wrong expectations and people’s reactions caught me totally off guard. Now, when I ask for things, I go in knowing that people will be angry and pissed off, but that their anger will dissipate eventually and it is worth it to tolerate such anger if it means I can successfully negotiate for something my lab members need. A nice colleague once told me, “Yes, people are going to be mad at you. But if you don’t stand up for this, they won’t respect you. They won’t be mad forever, just do it.”

  3. Jo Rhodes says:

    I agree with your ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ comment about feisty women. I have experienced criticism for being feisty and standing up for my work and asking for things, mostly by other women! And when I learnt to tone it down a little, I was criticised for being too meek (again, by women). I have never had criticism from men – in fact, I have always received more encouragement from men. I find the Aurora scheme that you have mentioned to be fascinating, and I think it would be brilliant if women in science could have female mentors who actually champion feistiness, and to promote it as an asset, not a disadvantage.

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  5. Pip Fisher says:

    Apart from anything else, being “feisty and unconventional” is exhausting in a way that
    fulfilling social expecations is not.

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