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 https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/03/13/lost-faculty-job-offer-raises-questions-about-negotiation-strategy 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.