Supporting Men, Supporting Women: We Need to do Both

I am not infrequently challenged about why I worry so much about women in academia when young men are being disadvantaged. This is seen to be particularly true in school exam results but also if one looks at the numbers of men entering certain university courses (Veterinary Sciences, Psychology, English…). Woman’s Hour ran a story on this very issue just last week. All is not perfect for boys and men, I have no doubt of that, Nevertheless for many of those women who do try to climb the academic ladder pernicious issues remain, all too often buried beneath the surface. This means the playing field frequently remains tilted very much against them. Think Geoff Marcy, who seems to have got away with harassment for far too long, as an extreme example: just because some boys/men are disadvantaged does not mean women are always getting more than their fair share or even being treated in a halfway decent fashion.

Despite this, I am firmly of the belief that we will not get true equality by thinking only about the issues facing women. Men who want to do their full share of parenting, who don’t want to globetrot simply to tick off conference invitations to put on their CVs or who prefer an understated way of running their research teams rather than bragging about them, need support just as much as the women. For that reason it makes sense to celebrate International Men’s Day (November 19th) in academia as elsewhere. Changing our society cannot be done by one part simply slagging off the other. We are definitely all in this together.

However…however, I do not believe that it is particularly helpful to see on a university’s Equality and Diversity site  a statement for International Men’s Day saying

‘In academic staff appointments, the data suggests that female candidates have a higher chance of being appointed than men.’

Is this data from their own university? Or what is that statement based on, which most academics I suspect would have a hard time reconciling with their own local experience? We know that the proportion of women in academic positions remains, overall, a rather small proportion of the total: at professorial level it is still less than a quarter. Has the University of York, the university in question, somehow managed to turn things around at appointment level so radically that women really do have an easier time of it? Or is, as I suspect, that statement simply based on the misreporting of the recent Ceci and Williams study which was interpreted by some as saying women were twice as likely to be appointed as men. There were many articles written debunking the study and the way it was presented in the mainstream media (see my own write up here). Sure, many people would like to believe that the particular nut that is bias in faculty appointment has been cracked, but the study was not based on real examples (fictitious CVs were used) and I am not aware of any institution which actually has reached such a point.

I understand that a number of academics at York have been upset by this bald statement appearing under the banner of Equality and Diversity on their university website. I am not surprised. York has been seen by many as a trailblazer in gender issues, ever since their Chemistry Department was awarded the first ever Athena Swan Gold award under the leadership of then head of department Paul Walton, a man who has gone on to talk tirelessly about the issues and what can be done to move towards gender equality. To put up a statement that looks unsupported and which appears to trivialise the problems many women continue to face does not seem helpful.

Other parts of York’s statements around International Men’s Day refer to the imbalance in the undergraduate population and the fact that some categories of staff (professional support services and departmental support staff are mentioned) have a significant under-representation of men. I know that this latter concern has been expressed to me by a (male) member of my own university – although here it is clear that at the highest grade men still significantly outnumber women in academic-related posts. Nevertheless, it is possible there is a cause for concern at the lower grades and I hope it is being investigated. I have not seen figures detailing average success rates for men and women in these grades. It is appointment (and promotion) success rates that matter now, since historical imbalances will take a while to work through the system.

There is of course a deeper philosophical question about what the numbers ‘should’ be. Just as I get taken to task when people assume I’m advocating that undergraduate physics classes should be exactly 50:50 men and women – something I’ve never said – so we probably should query what does under-representation of men in professional services mean. There could be all kinds of reason why men apply in lower numbers than women. However, if success rates are significantly different between the genders then I am more worried that we have a problem; I simply don’t know whether that is so or not. Someone, somewhere, Must have that data (and not just the percentages in the different grades which is all I am familiar with).

There is no doubt that we are in an era when we are still working out the right questions to ask, a vital step if we are to find sensible solutions to gender equality. But I am uncomfortable with any E+D group that paints too rosy a picture when women on the ground know that so many problems remain. Let’s see the evidence for York to reassure women (and men) that the statement on their website is accurate for their own university, or let’s see that statement removed and replaced with something more accurately reflecting the academic world today. By all means let us consider what steps can be taken to improve the lot of working men and identify where they are disadvantaged by virtue of their gender. But this should not be done at the expense of women. This should not be seen as a zero sum game but a process by which everyone’s working environment can be improved and by which you are appointed on merit, not because of your chromosomes.

The statements on the University of York website were brought to my attention by Jenny Saul who has written about her own thoughts on the matter here.

Update 16-11-15 0815 I understand that the statement does indeed refer to the University of York’s own aggregated data which can be found here.  I also understand that further thought is being given to the statement which may be modified (or possibly even removed). Certainly I believe that the wording made the fact that there was evidence from their own institution to support their statement completely unclear. The fact that many people read it as essentially trivialising the challenges women face without even realising the basis for the remark, shows that the wording was, at the very least, unfortunate. If I hear more I will continue to update this post.

Finally, I have not had time to examine the statistics provided but I am sure they will provide food for thought. Another commenter drew my attention to some US data which is also relevant. Considered thoughts will have to wait for a further post. I think it reinforces my closing statement that we are still working out what the right questions to ask are.

Update 16-11-1130 The statement on the E+D website has now been removed and replaced with the following:

‘The following is a response to an open letter sent to the University regarding an article published advising of our intention to mark International Men’s Day (19 November).

We are sorry that this has caused unhappiness for some members of the University community who felt that the statement was inappropriate and should never have been issued.  The intention was to draw attention to some of the issues men tell us they encounter and to follow this up by highlighting in particular the availability of mental health and welfare support which we know men are sometimes reluctant to access.

The Equality and Diversity Committee is clear that the main focus of gender equality work should continue to be on the inequalities faced by women, and in particular the under-representation of women in the professoriate and senior management.  We believe that we can make meaningful progress in addressing these issues, while at the same time addressing other aspects of the equality and diversity agenda.  To this end, we are putting in place new structures to extend and strengthen our approach to the Athena Swan awards, which provide a framework for our work on gender equality.

We will certainly reflect on the views expressed in the open letter and think twice about marking future Men’s Days. In the meantime, the statement marking this year’s International Men’s Day has been withdrawn.’

I applaud the University for acting in the face of manifest unhappiness. This does not mean I feel that the issues men face should not be given attention.


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2 Responses to Supporting Men, Supporting Women: We Need to do Both

  1. A couple of points.

    Last time I checked, real world data was the starting point for the Ceci and Williams study. That is, they found that actual hiring decisions tended to favor women applicants at a fairly high rate when they did apply. Of course, a simple cause for that imbalance could be that the women who apply are much better qualified than the competing men. The study was designed to find out if that was the case. It turned out it wasn’t.

    I’ve read the various criticisms and the responses by the authors. As far as I could tell, the criticism was not well founded, the authors were able to address all of it very comprehensively and convincingly (but that could be my bias).

    In your criticism of the study, you appear to make the common mistake of conflating outcome (“… I am not aware of any institution which actually has reached such a point.”) with process. The study says that the process is at the very least fair, but actually more likely biased towards women. That means that there are other reasons for the lopsided outcomes, and it’s not really hard to come up with likely candidates.

    You make the same mistake in your direct critique of the University of York’s statement. They speak of “female candidates have a higher chance of being appointed than men.”, a statement you criticize by saying that only a quarter of top positions are filled by women. These two statements are simply not contradictory.

    Strangely enough, you see this very clearly when talking about men: “There could be all kinds of reason why men apply in lower numbers than women.”

    • Thanks. I think there were plenty of commenters who did not feel the Ceci and Williams study was robust, but it was undoubtedly much more robust than the way it was reported.

      I fully appreciate there are many different issues involved and they are often hard to disentangle. I know full well there is a distinction between process and outcome. One of the points I tried to make is that the low proportion of women at the top will be driven historically which is why it is so important to look at success rates of now as distinct from simply overall percentages: I think you are misreading what I write. The complexity of the inter-relationships is why itis hard to tease out the different strands. If women are being more successful now – and I stand corrected on the evidence as I clearly have other figures in mind – then again we need to work out if that implies anti-male bias or the fact that the bias that has so long operated against women is now being overcome to the extent that the strong women are being correctly identified for hiring. This needs a further post to explore the issues (and I’m sure I don’t have the answers!)

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