Can We Get Beyond Quotas?

As people talk increasingly about the need for quotas of women on Boards and senior management teams of different kinds, it is worth considering not only whether this is desirable but whether it is viable. I am prompted to ask this question by an email from a senior civil servant seeking a diverse pool of applicants for such positions within a government department who questions whether the idea of ‘Board fatigue’ is genuine or an urban myth. It is an interesting question and one that I think has a complex answer. The complexity is neatly exemplified by a recent EMBO report looking at the pros and cons of quotas in academia; it deliberately doesn’t come up with a yes/no answer and probably the answer is ‘it depends’ on the specific situation.

Some women get asked to do many different things, to serve on a wide variety of committees some of which may wield genuine power and influence. These individuals are what one might term the ‘usual suspects’. Of course, because they are in the public (or at least the Government or Research Council’s) eye they get myriad opportunities to serve and to make their voice heard. Just as with men there is an inner, well-recognized group whose names easily trip off head hunter’s tongues or who will be instantly brought to mind by Vice Chancellors when asked to name an eminent woman. The number in these ranks is small and will vary between particular areas of science and engineering. There are likely to be more in the biological sciences than in computing, for instance, although often at the highest levels the specific discipline may be less important than the skill set possessed. These women can pick and choose, within reason, and may well suffer from Board fatigue.

What matters, though, is the next tier of individuals. As yet less visible, without quite the same blend of confidence and experience, these are the ones whom Vice Chancellors and head hunters should be thinking about, those who are ready for that tap on the shoulder which may nevertheless never come. It should not take a woman to come up with a woman’s name but experience tells me they try a little harder to do so than the average man. Diverse talent will be better recognized when that statement finally ceases to be true. Until it is, too often it is women recommending women and women’s networks that will facilitate women becoming better recognized. This needs to change.

So, what is the best way of facilitating this process of highlighting those on the cusp of readiness and not simply those who have already reached the most senior roles? How can we get past merely recycling the names of obvious individuals who are not going to have spare capacity to take on yet another role, however enticing that role might be? I think this is a challenge for the whole community.

Of course, one can have a committee of the great and good (but largely the very same) women designed specifically to come up with names of women. I’ve been involved in various such committees and by and large I am not convinced they are ever able to do enough. Nor do I believe it amounts to a genuine structural solution; it merely continues to load women with additional responsibilities whilst leaving too many men able to say that they didn’t think it was their role to do anything. Head hunters, as I’ve said before, have a crucial role to play but as yet I don’t think they’ve fully embraced this role, too often ringing around the obvious names who propose other equally obvious names. Maybe LinkedIn is the answer: I can’t say, as I’ve never joined. There is a European network (AcademiaNet) being set up to highlight female scientists across Europe, possibly more with an eye to conference speakers than Boards but certainly relevant to the latter too. This is relatively new and I haven’t heard whether it regards itself as a success yet or not but it is an interesting experiment.

Can the community itself do more? This is where I think the answer has to be yes. There should be a way of garnering names – locally by discipline, sub-field or geography – and making sure these names get picked up. Can universities build such an internal mechanism perhaps? I don’t know the answer; every organisation will no doubt be differently constructed and what works in one place may not in another. Perhaps it should be the Faculty Dean’s responsibility (or head of department) rather than leave it to the overarching VC who simply can’t be all-seeing. Do they do so, to seek out those up-and-coming women in their purlieu whose names should be kept constantly in mind for internal or external appointments? Do they have immediately to hand the names of women who could be asked to take on different types of roles so that they can easily put them forward on request? Professional bodies are often approached to suggest names and again, they could maintain lists of the approaching-the-top individuals who should be borne in mind but I certainly don’t know that they do so. The trouble is, from what I’ve seen, everyone thinks it is someone else’s responsibility.

Now I’m sure there will be readers who think this is all artificial. Why should women be given special treatment and shouldn’t we just be gathering lists of middle-ranking people regardless of gender? No doubt, in an ideal world, the answer would be yes. I wish it were so, but as yet we haven’t reached that happy state. Recall what the High Court judge Jonathan Sumption said just this week about women in the judiciary:

‘We have got to be very careful not to do things at a speed which will make male candidates feel that the cards are stacked against them. If we do that we will find that male candidates don’t apply in the right numbers.’

As barrister Charlotte Proudman responded tartly

‘Wouldn’t it be awful if men enjoying the privilege of an imbalance of power felt this privilege threatened?’

I don’t think things are so different in science.

I remain uneasy about quotas, for all the reasons the EMBO report highlights, though less so when it comes to Boards than when it comes to faculty appointments. Nevertheless, the least we can do to help to redress the balance is to make sure that anyone trying to construct a senior level committee has access to names of highly qualified women who could, perhaps should, be considered. We, collectively, need to make this easier.

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3 Responses to Can We Get Beyond Quotas?

  1. Rachel says:

    The recycling the same faces rings true, the few women there are in my industry get pulled in again and again to do girl coding events, industry profiles, women in STEM…. Leaving less time for the main job and also putting folk in an often unwelcome spot light or pigeon hole, with less time for generic industry networking…. A constant reminder we are a bit of an anomaly….

    • Philippa Moore says:

      Perhaps the female few who are being asked over and over should collect a few names of their up and coming female colleagues, and rather than saying simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’, instead offer ‘I don’t have the time myself, but have you considered either X or Y who might wish to be involved instead of me?’

      Also, it doesn’t simply need to be all young female volunteers to help with girls in STEM activities, and let’s encourage some young males to be involved too as part of their CSR. It’s the getting into schools and showing some female faces that counts, not just parading all your female engineers and none of the males. I doubt any girl was put off going into STEM because it was a man who encouraged her and showed her her potential rather than a woman.

  2. chris says:

    From speaking to leading female researchers at my institution I do get the impression that ‘Board fatigue’ is real and that these leading women would appreciate more capable female representation on boards.

    The community should do more and I think that is at all career stages to ensure that female scientists can see themselves as leaders (i.e. senior people who make decisions about others – for those of you who don’t like the term ‘leader’). There is a body of social research that indicates that subtle bias often affects this ability to see oneself as a leader and so we need to make sure that appropriate training is given to female and male scientists to recognise and act against this type of bias. There is also a body of social research that indicates that senior female leaders can have a massive influence over the development of more junior colleagues, providing support and sponsorship can hugely affect how individuals see themselves and are perceived by peers. In my opinion, having working in both commercial and public organisations, to be really effective it needs to have high level management commitment (not just in issuing a statement, but in monitoring and requiring progress at all levels).

    I think one way that senior female scientists can address this issue is by directly encouraging other female colleagues who they think have the right potential to apply for positions on various boards, etc. as they become vacant. Generally, I have found that there isn’t a great appetite to sit on funding council boards (committees, panels, networks, advisory teams, etc. – a good start on an upward trajectory of influence in science) amongst the general academic population (both male and female) in any case, so encouragement from senior colleagues is helpful to push forward any talented individual, regardless of gender.