Embedding the Gender Agenda

I feel as if I have been involved with gender issues forever, but this is just the bad habit one has of reimagining personal history. Probably acting wisely, in fact for most of my professional career I just got on with my physics trying not to focus on the fact that, as a woman, I was invariably in a small minority in any given room. Not infrequently that minority consisted solely of me, particularly relatively early on. It was in fact only in 2007 I engaged in my first explicitly gender-related role when I became Director of WiSETI, Cambridge University’s Women in Engineering, Science and Technology Initiative. To some extent I took this on in a fit of pique, prompted by circumstances that I needn’t bore you with but which were undoubtedly, at least in part, down to my gender being the ‘wrong’ one.

This autumn I will be stepping down as the University’s Gender Equality Champion, a role which seemed naturally to grow out of my involvement with WiSETI and the opportunities that provided for me to speak out about local issues, imbalances and inequities. Relinquishing this role, which I have formally been doing for 4 years, is part of my deliberate rebalancing of my ‘portfolio’ as I take up the reins at Churchill College. However, 4 years is probably a sensible stint: long enough to familiarise myself with the problems and the structures in which they are embedded; time to persuade others what might make a difference and to identify mechanisms which might make these changes possible. However I hope not so long that I have become jaded and ineffective. Nevertheless it will be good to have new people coming in with fresh perspectives.

One natural consequence of moving on is to reflect on what has and hasn’t been achieved that might have been on my initial ‘to do’ list had I had anything as concrete as that in mind when I started. And a recent meeting of the Council of the School of Physical Sciences (to which I am co-opted as a member of University Council, another role I will be relinquishing this autumn) encapsulated for me both where significant pleasing progress has been made and where we are still stuck. I can’t help feeling this little vignette must be playing out in similar ways in many situations around the HE sector, although exactly where each organisation is along the implicit timeline will no doubt vary.

At some point before I was a regular attendee at these meetings, I was invited along to discuss gender issues. That dates it to after 2007 when I became Director of WiSETi and before autumn 2009 when I joined University Council, so let’s say 2008: 6 years ago. At that time it was clear that in Physical Sciences (which in this context includes Maths both pure and applied, Geography, Materials Science and Earth Sciences as well as Physics and Chemistry) we had problems. Low numbers at every level, a leaky pipeline to make things worse and, from my own experience, some fairly ill-thought through practices at appointments and committees in general. I presented some facts, statistics and observations to what was (I’m 99% sure) an all-male group and was listened to politely. Yes, they agreed, it wasn’t really good enough was it. And then they moved on to the next item on the agenda. (Again, I may be rewriting things a bit here because I have no documentary evidence, but this is my strong impression). Gender issues were something separate, special, needed to be given air time but not actually of sufficient importance to register highly with anyone or to need to be a recurrent topic of discussion.

Contrast this with my experience last week. By this point the School has an Equality and Diversity (E+D) Forum which meets termly to discuss these and other diversity issues. A paper was presented by the current Chair, Anne Davies (Professor of Mathematical Physics) recommending that all individuals (academics and academic-related) involved in appointments should be required to take – and pass – the University’s online E+D training module. Discussion around the table showed that everyone was absolutely behind this and indeed pushed to see this strengthened and applied to all appointment levels, not just for staff appointments. This, to their minds, was a no-brainer. Progress indeed from the passive response I had received all those years ago. There is no longer the need to explain gender issues as something special; everyone round that table ‘gets’ it and knows we need to work even harder to make sure everyone else takes it on board too. The actual actions may seem small, but their significance is much greater and demonstrate that thinking about gender has become embedded in the collective psyche.

But, where things are less rosy is that that damn pipeline has not had long enough to stop leaking. The women round the table were me (co-opted), Anne presenting the paper, the Director of Education (Rachael Padman, who also happens to be a University Council member) and the School Finance Officer Susan Wright; the core of the Council of the School is heads of institution who are a nice homogenous bunch of white men, with the only non-white attendee being the School’s Deputy Secretary Kusam Leal, who happened to be absent that day. There has been a female head in the School, Susan Owens who last year completed her term as Head of Geography, but I think she has been the only one. Which comes back, not only to the crucial need for appointments committees to be aware of gender issues and unconscious bias when individuals are first appointed, but for departments collectively to be aware of these factors when our wonderfully obscure and democratic Cambridge mechanisms for nominating new heads are whirring away. All the unconscious bias studies about the way women’s competence is judged are likely to be at play (see here for a recent summary of the head hunters view of the gender angle in senior appointments), making it that much harder for any woman to assume such a senior role.

Cambridge more widely has certainly had some very notable female heads of department, including Ann Dowling (Engineering, who is now taking up the role of President of the Royal Academy of Engineering). But we have a long way to go and not just in the sciences. As recognition of this fact, my gender equality role will be strengthened as I step down, by splitting it. I have found it well nigh impossible to be familiar with the practices and culture in all the different parts of the university. To make this task more feasible two Champions will be appointed, one on the STEM side, one on the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences side. These individuals will be supported by School Champions, two from each of the six Schools: a male and a female. In this way a much more extensive network will be able to continue to press both centrally and on the local issues they see as most important.

I genuinely believe we are constructing a structure where equality issues will be properly addressed and mainstreamed. The momentum is, and should be, unstoppable. The commitment from the top is very real and the support the gender work has had from both the Vice Chancellor and Jeremy Sanders, the relevant PVC, has been wonderful. Fixing the problems will not come easily or fast, but there is a recognition across the University that the problems are real and mustn’t be ignored. Once upon a time these issues would have been seen as simply down to a bunch of whingeing women who needed to be placated but otherwise ignored. As an example of this somewhat naïve view I will, perhaps unfairly, single out a comment made to me by the then VC, Alec (now Lord) Broers after an early WiSETI dinner which he was hosting (thereby clearly demonstrating his commitment to what we were espousing) in the early 2000’s. I had been having a bit of a moan about local issues and was confronted with ‘But Athene, I thought we’d sorted Physics out when we made you Professor‘. We have moved on. I am quite sure neither he, nor anyone else, would think creating a single female professor was a solution to any particular part of the problem these days.

As I get ready to step down I do feel some optimism about the direction of travel.


This entry was posted in Equality, Women in Science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Embedding the Gender Agenda

  1. Mathematician says:

    Thank you very much for writing this (and of course even more significantly for the actions you are taking all year throughout your many roles). I am a young woman with the rank of professor in an internationally respected mathematics department. Around mid-afternoon I often hit a lonely point, during which the background message that I have not seen a single female mathematician all day rises all too far to the front of my thoughts; in such a moment, reading a strong and thoughtful essay like this is incredibly important. Now I can clear my head, feel less lonely, and get back to writing up a nice result. Thank you.

    • Rebecca Hoyle says:

      That strikes such a chord! I am also a woman maths prof, and spent the first part of my career in – well in DAMTP, Cambridge, where there were very few women at the time, and it couldn’t help but impress itself upon me. Now I am at the University of Surrey and there are really quite a lot of us. It feels good to feel more normal. I don’t know where you are or what your research area is, but if it resonates with ours at all, and you are within striking distance, do get in touch!

      And I was tremendously cheered to read in Athene’s piece just how much things have changed in Cambridge, no doubt in no small measure owing to her own efforts. Though it was far from easy to be a woman PhD student and then research fellow in DAMTP when I was, I have very fond memories of the place.

Comments are closed.