Transparency versus Diversity

Within the EU, Commissioner Neelie Kroes is leading the push to have a Commission with a female contingent that is at least beginning to be representative of the population. Her call for #TenOrMore women commissioners doesn’t sound unreasonable: it would still only amount to around 30% of them and is roughly the composition of José Manuel Barosso’s current Commission. In seeking a new group of commissioners, each country makes its own suggestions and therefore does so independently. The last time I saw the current list it was, as someone put it on Twitter, worse than the make-up of the Saudi Arabian Parliament: 4 female names and 19 men’s. Kroes’ call is unlikely to be met unless Jean-Claude Juncker does something forceful about the nominations.

This is very much the same as happens with slates of speakers for conferences. Each person charged with coming up with a name or two for the invited and plenary speakers is likely to think of some obvious ones. This list is put together for the final slate. In all likelihood there is hardly a female’s name (or a minority ethnic but, for simplicity, I will simply discuss the case of women in this post) amongst them. The wise conference organiser will then start again to get a more representative slate – or risk opprobrium or a boycott. On the other hand, if a committee collectively puts forward a dozen names in mutual discussion, a decent proportion of women’s names is much more likely to be forthcoming. Men and women alike are likely to think of male names first and only when challenged – or when primed by prior experience – produce the name of a woman or two. But most people now are sufficiently aware of the issue that if the list is arrived at collectively and seen as a whole then it is more likely to be balanced. Why we all tend to think of men first is not something I intend to consider here, only the net effect.

What about committees? If trying to construct a committee from scratch (or refresh an existing one) there is clearly an opportunity to strive for a balanced committee membership representing diversity, be it by discipline, gender, ethnicity or geography. But there’s a problem. If people are simply tapped on the shoulder – as by implication is the case with the invited speakers or the EU’s commissioners – it hardly looks like a transparent process. Indeed, it isn’t a transparent process. It smacks of the old boy’s club and you might fear that you will end up with exactly what you don’t want: an unbalanced committee.

Logically, the way to get round this is to seek nominations. Ask the head of department or the vice chancellor or whoever is relevant to nominate individuals: then you risk being back in the situation of the EU Commission when each person you ask may be more likely to nominate a white male than anyone else and you certainly won’t achieve balance on these fronts, even if you have steered the requests for nominations to secure geographical or disciplinary balance. Surely self-nomination is the way to go then?

Unfortunately that doesn’t work either, as a recent exercise run by one of the Research Councils has, I am led to believe, demonstrated only too clearly. Women are just much less likely to put themselves forward (see my thoughts on this issue here) so the nominations that came in seem to have been not even in proportion to the women in the cohort. Having spotted that this has happened the Council nevertheless feels obliged – and one can see why – to stick with the process as advertised, despite the dismal outcome for diversity.

So there is a challenge. The powers-that-be can opt not for transparency but for ensuring a good mix on the committee by manipulation of those invited to join and be accused of cronyism, tokenism or some other unflattering -ism; or they can optimistically rely on minorities to put their names forward which the evidence suggests they are unwilling to do. Maybe you naively think that women should simply pin their colours to the mast and self-nominate, but unfortunately experience may have demonstrated to them that it is a risky strategy. Be it asking for a pay rise or negotiating a package, women too often get penalised simply for asking. (As an extreme case, see the sad story of W who negotiated over her faculty package, although of course one can’t prove that what happened to her only happened because she was a woman.)

I don’t know where the balance between diversity and transparency should lie. It is a condemnation of how the academic world operates (and, I would guess, much further afield than that) that it isn’t possible to achieve both simultaneously. We urgently need to make progress on this front.



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7 Responses to Transparency versus Diversity

  1. Laurence Cox says:

    Here is an example of Neelie Kroes’ argument from another field:

    “Other data showed that women are less likely to be perceived as the leader in mixed-gender scenarios, Urry said. When small numbers of women are present, they can become an “other” that stands in for the whole gender, magnifying perceived mistakes and potentially confirming a bias that women are less proficient in physics.

    “You need a large enough group that people stop thinking of them as the woman and start thinking of them as the scientist,” Urry said.”

    • Additionally, if one gender is in a significant minority they may not be able to make any impact on any discussion about gender. Even if people listen politely they can then go on as if nothing has changed.

  2. On Twitter, I have had a rather depressing exchange with someone. I think it shows why the problems persist. I attach the exchange here, identifying him only as XY.

    AMD Why is it so difficult to get a balanced committee? Yesterday’s post: Transparency versus Diversity

    XY should population representativeness always trump competence representativeness?

    AMD By which I assume you’re implying there aren’t enough competent women/minorities? Don’t think that applies to these situations

    XY Psychologists, for example, doesn’t have to representative of the entire population, psychological research ought to be

    AMD But when it comes to making decisions eg about strategy, diversity of viewpoints matter and shd represent community they serve

    XY disagree. Assumes opinion trumps any knowledge: policy by Facebook, in which case comtee redundant

    AMD I reiterate I am assuming that there are plenty of experts who are minorities so don’t agree with your negative view

    XY appoint on merit, experience, knowledge. Check the CV, not the genetics.

    AMD If women and men of equal merit were treated equally that would be fine. They aren’t

    XY Sad if we moved from merit not being fairly recognized to merit not being required at all.

    AMD Ummm, who’s suggesting that? I think you’re missing the point of finding diverse people all with merit

    XY Diversity is not an accomplishment. How can it validly lead to any preferment?

    At this point I’m afraid I despaired of convincing my correspondent who seemed to believe thinking more widely about inclusion necessarily reduced ‘merit’. I felt depressed.

  3. The failure of women to self-nominate is certainly unfortunate (if it is generally true). What is your opinion of this, as an entirely speculative contribution to the reason? Women may be better than men at achieving a sane balance between work and life. They would rather spend time on science rather than on the endless meetings on which senior academics spend so much of their time. They would prefer that their reputation depended on the quality of their science than on their ability to manipulate political networks.

    Peter Lawrence (of the LMB), in his beautiful essay in The Mismeasurement of Science, said

    “Gentle people of both sexes vote with their feet and leave a profession that they, correctly, perceive to discriminate against them [17]. Not only do we lose many original researchers, I think science would flourish more in an understanding and empathetic workplace.”

    • David
      The evidence seems to be that women don’t self-nominate because they believe that they shouldn’t. I think we bring up girls (and all this is very stereotypical of course; some men will be the same) not to put themselves forward, tell them that this is something ‘nice girls’ don’t do. So they hang back and wait for someone else to propose their names. That doesn’t necessarily get you very far. I wrote about this before.

      But it’s even worse because women who do put themselves forward are more likely to be disliked (or otherwise penalised), described as pushy or ambitious bitches in a way that a man who does the same is not. I could dig up some evidence for this in many spheres of life – nothing peculiar to science here – but I don’t have this immediately to hand.

  4. Colin G. Finlay says:

    Perhaps the balance between transparency and diversity, in science at least, may be better gauged by a perusal of this article :

    • Colin
      I’m not sure how helpful that is. It is dealing with a very specific issue which is much less broad than ‘science’. Furthermore, no committee I have seen has minority ethnics in the proportion discussed (though it is dealing with the US stats rather than UK). Overall I think it addresses a rather different question.

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