Currently I spend far more time giving talks around gender issues than about my science. I don’t know what I feel about this. I am, after all, a physicist not a psychologist or social scientist but increasingly I seem to be treated as if I were a serious gender expert. All I have to share is my experience: my experience both as a woman who has survived within the system and as someone who is attempting to effect change within my own institution and has some scope and influence to make such change happen. In that I am fortunate. Many women wish to see things change, can see actions large and small that might locally make a difference, but do not occupy a role in their organisation’s structures that make it easy to push such actions through.
When I give such talks – last week it was at the Genome Campus just outside Cambridge, with an audience from both the Sanger Institute and the EBI – I always learn a lot both from my hosts and the questions thrown at me by the audience. Often I am brought up short by a take on things I hadn’t thought through before: everyone’s experience and environment is different, thus leading to different perspectives. At one of these talks, and I can no longer remember which one, I was challenged that it was very dispiriting to hear about the difficulties and maybe for young women it was better not to know that the going could be tough. It is a viewpoint I have some sympathy with, particularly for the individual, but if these things aren’t discussed progress is unlikely to be made.
When I was a young researcher, I didn’t think about my gender at all. Whilst knowing that I might be in a tiny minority in the room – be it an undergraduate teaching lab or, at a later date, a conference hall – I didn’t feel that had any bearing on how I was treated. As I progressed I continued to feel uncomfortable at being so obviously visibly ‘different’, but still didn’t see a fundamental problem in how I was treated as a scientist. If my arguments weren’t listened to, or if people talked over me, I assumed it was because I wasn’t persuasive and that their views were ‘better’. What changed my perception was reading the ground-breaking 1999 MIT Report on A Study on the Status of Women. I have written about this (and its 2011 companion study) previously so I won’t say much about the specifics. Sufficient to say that the statement in this early report
In contrast to junior women, many tenured women faculty feel marginalized and excluded from a significant role in their departments. Marginalization increases as women progress through their careers at MIT.
suddenly made me realise that my experiences were not necessarily my ‘fault’ but could be systemic. I was, after all, by this point already not only a professor but an FRS, externally taken seriously but apparently less so locally. Was this a problem with my working environment and not for instance (as Mary Beard has highlighted) because my voice was the wrong pitch? In the short term, reading the MIT report actually made me angry, but possibly in the longer term it gave me confidence. It spelled out that the fault might not lie in me and that, if I could step back from the personal (always so difficult to do) maybe I could identify not how to change myself fundamentally but how to work within the system. Not simply to try to shout louder (unlikely to succeed) but how to develop support systems and strategies that might involve going round the houses but could ultimately get me to the desired end. Probably up till then I had simply assumed that if what I thought was right, right would ultimately triumph and if not I should shut up. You will detect I am not talking about science per se, but about strategic or resourcing issues. I was not an overnight success at this changed approach, nor did the anger quickly fade but looking back hindsight tells me that I did make progress.
I think, regardless of the strategy any given individual might choose to adopt faced with a similar situation, there is another important message here. I believe for many women (in academia and outside) it is mid-career that is most challenging: when one is seen as ‘alien’ by the majority (presumed to be male, certainly in a subject such as mine), possibly even a threat, albeit probably unconsciously. My experience – and discussions with other senior women supports this point of view – is that ultimately one’s situation improves again, so there is hope for those finding themselves in this dispiriting and painful mid-career trough. This pattern of progression is not often discussed but perhaps should be. And perhaps, as another batch of Athena Swan Awards are announced this week (including a Gold to my own department), institutions should factor this issue in their action plans.
So are you better off thinking it is all your fault? Or is it better to swallow the unpleasant pill that says our society is rife in unconscious bias (and certainly not just in science) and other shortcomings so that any difficulties that have to be faced are as likely to be systemic as down to your own failings? If issues are not discussed, if the fact that there are those who (consciously or not) trample on and patronise the women in their teams and departments – even if it doesn’t amount quite to bullying or harassment – isn’t aired, what are we doing for those who come hereafter? I fear we will be sustaining an environment in which our daughters cannot thrive as well as our sons but merely be perpetuating the same system for another generation. All aspects of our working environment need to be scrutinised.
I believe it is only if we air the issues, face up to the limitations of what we have, of identifying who does what well and where the system lets individuals down, that we can move forward. It isn’t only down to the shocking behaviour, the truly horrible sexist remarks or blatant harassment, but the more subtle and therefore more invidious actions – the death by a thousand cuts that too many women face up to without even necessarily explicitly appreciating the problems they encounter daily – that we will genuinely be supporting the most talented. This is not an argument against men, this isn’t a zero sum game. It is in fact merely an attempt to create workplaces where the most talented thrive regardless of their sex, skin colour, religion or any other attribute, and a place where the status quo is constantly challenged to see if there is something better around the corner.