I first realised that the problems I was facing might just, possibly, not be down to my own shortcomings when I read the 1999 MIT report on the Status of Women. For the first time it occurred to me that my failure to be persuasive in committee meetings, or to convince the head of department of the importance of my research area, or to be treated with the respect that seemed to be accorded to other professors and FRSs…..maybe it wasn’t simply because I was incompetent. I was not pleased to work this out. It is easier, perhaps more comfortable, to believe that if you just try harder you might improve your skill base; that it lies in your hands to develop and succeed. To appreciate that the odds are systemically stacked against you is painful because it tells you there is nothing you can apparently do to improve your lot.
However, that is probably too negative a view. I am talking about nearly 20 years ago and at least the inbuilt biases are now laid bare for everyone to observe. Many committees I sit on are more than willing to discuss possible unconscious bias. People appreciate that references can be subtly (or indeed not so subtly) devaluing contributions from women. But if you are dealing, for instance, with an analysis of research grant success rates, how can you tell where any problems reside? As I’ve written before this is an issue the European Research Council constantly faces. Why is it that the Life Sciences domain is apparently less likely to award a grant to a woman than a man, whereas the other two domains are seemingly gender blind with essentially parity when it comes to success rates between the genders? The trouble is, we don’t know the answer.
For any funder it is possible to draw up a list of possible sources of inequity, and then to try to work out the steps that are needed for a remedy. Factors could include any (combination) of the following:
- Women being less competent (I’m including this for completeness rather than because I accept it!);
- Women being judged to be less competent;
- Women receiving less benefit from mentoring;
- Women underselling their track record;
- Women sounding less confident about their plans and hyping less in what they write;
- Women not having time to apply because they are overloaded with other tasks in their institutions;
- Women receiving less encouragement – or even active discouragement – to apply;
- Women spending comparatively more time on childcare or other household responsibilities;
- Women being given less opportunity to lead teams and develop independence;
- Women publishing less.
Others can probably expand this list, which is certainly not meant to sound like victim-blaming. I am simply trying to identify factors that may impact on women and thereby highlight whose task – which won’t necessarily be the funder’s – it might be to resolve it. However, maybe it is time to rewrite this list to make it clear where responsibilities should sit or how we might change the narrative.
|Women being judged to be less competent||Unconscious bias training is getting more common and panels are more aware of the issues. Funders’ responsibility|
|Women receiving less benefit from mentoring
|Employer’s responsibility to ensure all who need it receive mentoring and it doesn’t rely on the old boys’ network to deliver.|
|Women underselling their track record;
|Or is this a case of men overselling their track record? Funders can try to standardise how track records are to be presented and employers can provide mentoring, oversight and guidance for how to write this up. Panels should try not to be blinded by fancy words or self-important egos, wherever found.|
|Women sounding less confident about their plans and hyping less in what they write
|Are panels rewarding the bullshit factor? Should panels be trained in hyperbole detection? Should employers provide support for grant writers to ensure applicants neither over- or undersell their ideas?|
|Women not having time to apply because they are overloaded with other tasks in their institutions
|Departments should look critically at workload models and ensure fair treatment of all. Bad departmental citizens should not be tolerated, let alone rewarded.|
|Women receiving less encouragement – or even active discouragement – to apply
|This needs unconscious bias training at departmental level, particularly but not exclusively of the leadership team. Mentoring also has a role to play.|
|Women spending comparatively more time on childcare or other household responsibilities
|This, unfortunately, is a societal issue that we should all speak up about, but cannot be resolved by funder or employer.|
|Women being given less opportunity to lead teams and develop independence
|Employers need to think hard about this, an effect probably down to implicit bias and lack of mentoring procedures. We live too much by ‘to him [sic] that hath shall be given’.|
|Women publishing less||Whoever said we should be judging on quantity? Funders should reconsider if they are implicitly doing this. We should make sure criteria of excellence are appropriate and not based on outdated concepts.|
For some time I personally thought it was all down to the funders’ panels’ implicit bias. I have come to believe that this is probably only the origin of a small fraction of the problems. Other issues need to be tackled closer to home. However, we need constantly to revisit the barriers that may underlie uneven success rates and work out the how, who and what in order to resolve this issue. Levelling the playing field should be in everyone’s interests; employers should certainly take note of all that they could and should do. Nevertheless it is important to keep in mind that crude statistics of success rates can only take us so far and the qualitative insight that anecdote and experience feed in must also be taken into account.