Despite the news being full of stories about how minorities are disadvantaged in larger or smaller ways, it is far from obvious that rapid progress is being made. The articles I read are full of appropriate shock at everything from the gender pay gap to the lack of women in the board room and misogyny in social media, yet are the organisations that publish this stuff actually doing anything about it? The media hardly has a good reputation when it comes to promoting women. Whose responsibility is it? It’s a question that’s just as pertinent to higher education and I recently read two very different articles in quick succession that threw into sharp focus some of the problems we, collectively, face. Should we expect the young women just setting out on their academic careers to change the world in which they move, or is that completely the wrong way of setting about things?
The first piece I’d refer you to is a post written by a PhD student in astronomy in the US. Her title “‘Women in Science’ Groups as Instruments of Change” immediately tells you what her point of view is. She is someone who is clearly walking the walk and trying to effect change in her organisation. She says that such groups
‘play a critical role in the scientific community, using mentoring, networking, and personal and professional development to bring about a new culture. They serve to change the system from the ground up, demonstrating that diversity breeds excellence and paving the way for even larger initiatives.’
She also recommends them as ‘present[ing] unique opportunities for personal growth, professional advancement, and cultural change.‘ I can’t disagree with any of that, but I am not convinced that it can ever be sufficient to have a bunch of women banding together to discuss the problems, even if they take them to Deans and Heads of Department. It is only if the people in power themselves walk the walk that change will really come about. Otherwise I fear you don’t get beyond window dressing, a place that universities have been for far too long.
I reflected recently on how I saw my own university changing from a place where women banded together to identify the problems they faced to one where those at the top, from the VC down, feel responsibility for making that change. And it is that progression that, I believe, is crucial, a view reinforced by an article (by Sara McCelland and Kathryn Holland) I came across recently. In this paper an analysis of interviews carried out with senior academics and administrators in a single US university who had received funding from NSF’s ADVANCE Program is presented. (The ADVANCE programme, which aims at ‘increasing the participation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering careers’ provides substantial sums of money competitively to assist institutions in progressing towards this goal.)
McClelland and Holland identified different sorts of responses to the questions they asked the interviewees, made up of men and women (though predominantly and unsurprisingly the former due to the make-up of the senior team at the particular institution studied). There were clear differences between those who assumed high levels of what was termed ‘personal responsibility’ and those who took the view that the problem lay elsewhere. For this latter group, doing nothing was OK; they were content to note passively that women did tend to drop out more than men, or that they were penalised for speaking out in ways men were not, but their observations did not move them to do anything to alter the situation.
The authors also analysed who each person thought should have responsibility for any change. Many, too many, seemed to take the line that it was up to the women themselves to change, not recognizing that there were endemic issues within the system and its practices. In particular this group believed that women made choices about having children, almost as if this had nothing to do with men. This position is summed up by the quote ‘having kids is a choice. You have to pay the price for having them‘, a statement I find inconceivable could have been said about male faculty, even if some of them do feel they are paying a price (e.g. by not travelling) and willingly paying it. The reality should be that careers in academia do not make this an either/or choice of career or family for anyone, whatever their gender, and yet systemically that presumption is too frequently and casually made.
This group who felt no personal responsibility for doing anything also felt that if there was a lack of support for a female faculty member it was up to her to seek out such support (‘aggressively’ as the article put it) and not an institutional problem that such support was not automatically offered. I’m sure each reader will recognize colleagues who fit this low responsibility position. The deficit model that it is the women who need to be fixed underlies a widespread assumption about how things work. Only if those at the top – so likely still to be men – accept responsibility for effecting change will enduring improvements occur. The women in science groups can do their bit by offering each other support (hugely important of course). They can identify the problems their members face, highlighting issues that may not be immediately obvious to the powers-that-be about recruitment, promotion or simply the daily culture in a department, but on their own they will often be up against a cohort who simply don’t recognize that the problems lie within their own behaviour and expectations and who will consequently be unlikely to act to improve the situation.
I think this recent publication – albeit it seems to be based on interviews that took place 10 years ago; it isn’t clear why it has taken so long to be published – provides valuable insight for those who want to point out to their senior management why they, the managers, are often the ones who need to take action. Now. It is too easy, for instance when a department is putting together an Athena Swan advisory group, for the Head simply to turn to some young, keen recent female hire and tell her it is her responsibility to move things forward. It is easy, but also unfair, unreasonable and unlikely to be productive for her or the department. Senior management step up please. Take on the responsibility for ensuring your systems genuinely translate into equality for all: that unconscious bias is teased out wherever it lurks and is ultimately eradicated; that the uncertain but talented are supported; and that workloads are shared out fairly and not lazily dumped onto those who don’t complain. That is the way to ensure that women thrive, but equally so do the deserving men and not just those of either sex who are jerks, loud-mouthed and/or selfish, but not necessarily academically all that smart.