New Year Frustrations

I spent some of my time off around New Year attempting to start as I mean to go on by tidying my ‘home office’. In the run-up to Christmas, as exhaustion took over and time ran out, I had increasingly just been dumping piles of paper precariously on the edge of my desk as I rushed in from meetings. No sorting; no tidying; no order. So January 1st seemed a good moment to start to sort through stuff, and I went further and tidied some of the shelves and nooks and crannies where I stuff bits of paper. I do not, and I doubt I ever will, run a paper-free office. From post-it notes to print outs of papers and reports, from committee work (I always want hard copies of papers for committees I chair, if not for those of which I am simply a member) to letters from strangers who heard me on the radio or read something I’d written in a newspaper and felt an urge to react, all needed filing.

So, my office is now significantly tidier and the recycling bin overflowing. What I found depressing, amongst all those papers, were the blogposts, reports and other publications I’d hoarded over the past years of issues around gender in case I got around to blogging about them. Most particularly, but not exclusively, these were about issues facing female scientists in academia. The totality of these made me feel deeply, deeply frustrated. The issues are not exactly hidden and yet progress is so glacially slow. There is progress, but for all the increasing awareness and more widespread  D(and often mandatory) training around equality issues, the change in our wider society as well as in our local academic environments has not yet transformed how women are perceived and expected to behave. Or how we are collectively treated. Maybe at some time in the future we will reach a tipping point when all the small steps forward suddenly amount to a deep change in our collective minds that means male (and a particular version of male at that) by default as the appropriate model is no longer regarded as adequate. Maybe my children will live to see this, but I no longer expect it will be during my working life.

To illustrate my point, let me list some of the articles I found stuffed in a folder as material I might have been going to blog about:

I could go on, but the message is clear. The problems have been identified, they have been reported on in the scholarly press as well as in more mainstream media, yet they don’t go away. Laura Bates gave her summary of how women have been treated over the past year in her end of year round-up in the Guardian: more sober reading within a much broader context. American society was treated to the unedifying tape of Donald Trump boasting about how he could assault women with impunity and get away with it – and get away with getting away with it, as millions of American men and women didn’t think such behaviour immediately disqualified him from about the most powerful position on earth. We are not, collectively, making great strides forward are we? We know harassment is present in our hallowed halls of academe but haven’t found a way to handle, let alone eradicate it effectively.

All one can do is keep on pressing on. Being discouraged is futile (although perhaps inevitable) and there is no doubt we have moved from the ‘there isn’t a problem anymore is there?’ thoughts of a decade ago, to a realisation that yes there really is still a substantial problem. The challenge in academia is that the problems are not rooted there; the problems are similar in the media, the legal profession, indeed everywhere one looks. Industry seems to take the issues seriously at the lower ranks yet Boards are still overwhelmingly composed of straight white males, even if less overwhelmingly than in the past.

Many of the problems start at birth. The baby girl who is greeted as a delicate princess and over the years supplied with dolls (and little else) and pink dresses; the toddler and young schoolgirl encouraged to sit still and not explore the world, take things to pieces or take risks. The female student around GCSE time who receives subtle and not-so-subtle messages that engineering is not a suitable career aspiration and that doing maths, computing or physics A level might be a little ‘odd’ – why doesn’t she do psychology or English instead? And the student who ignores this advice and goes to university still wanting to pursue engineering who then feels isolated and dismayed by being surrounded by an overwhelmingly male cohort. All these factor into the ongoing paucity of role models and the lack of women entering the STEM workforce in academia and much more widely.

What we can do in academia is continue to push for change in areas that are within our control such as promotion criteria, the way appointments are made, support for parents (including enhanced parental pay and childcare support costs on conference and fieldwork trips) and non-standard hours of work. Some of these are cultural rather than procedural. Why shouldn’t a part-time academic be promoted? They can be (and have been) in Cambridge but as I travel I frequently hear an implicit message that part-timers aren’t taken seriously so what’s the point of applying. If you want an argument against a so-called motherhood penalty, take a look at this article which indicates averaged over the years parents are more not less productive. The presumption in academia is that the ideal professor is someone who is simply never ‘off’, who works ridiculous hours, travels extensively and for whom research is the only thing that matters has to be challenged explicitly. It doesn’t do any favours to many men as well as most women. Furthermore I believe it is a presumption and I’m not aware of evidence supporting the view that people like this are best for the institution taken in the round.

So in 2017 these are arguments I will continue to press. I hope readers will do the same in their own organisations. Don’t forget #Just1Action4WIS.

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2 Responses to New Year Frustrations

  1. Maria says:

    Thank you very much for writing about this!

    Everyone stands up against harassment, but not against the harasser. They stand up against rape, but not rapists. They stand up for women’s rights, but not for THAT woman.
    Athene, imagine for a moment a colleague who is very dear to you. If someone who seems quite emotional, depressed and has gaps in memory pointed to this colleague very dear to you (perhaps someone you trained and invested in several for years, so is a part of your scientific legacy) or a family member and said it is a rapist – would you believe this person? I think most people would try to discard the woman’s perspective (“I am for women’s rights, but in this particular case …” etc. – with many particular cases… he did not mean it, you don’t want to destroy his career, what about the reputation of the university – as if universities were not inhabited by humans who sometimes fail etc.).

    Universities often also come to the conclusion that the procedures they already have are enough – so, in theory, there would not be a problem as they “take such allegations very seriously”. This is simply not true.

    This problem would not exist if complaint were made to a supra-university body with people who are trained in diversity matters and have no conflict of interest. Women complain and their complaint is rejected (e.g., because “the complainant received an excuse”). It also resolves the problem that harassers sometimes simply move to another institution and continue to harass people there. It also resolves the problem that when a collaborator from another university harasses you, you cannot complain because complaint procedures only apply to your home institution.
    Particularly until the issue of conflict of interest is resolved, I think it is absolutely dangerous to encourage people (of any gender) to report harassment, as the process is absolutely retraumatising (with people wielding lots of power over you and there is nothing you can do about it) and does not really solve the problem (as a complaint typically has no consequences for the harasser).

    A further issue is – how could you trust anyone who stands up for diversity and women’s rights in public to support you? I am not sure whether people will come out, e.g. to you, with such stories because essentially you are “one of them”, i.e., the senior academics who such complaints are made to and who would, in case of doubt, send fuzzy letters around which serve to satisfy the victim without making judgments, or simply reject your complaint without citing reasons. Why should you trust your Diversity Chancellor or women’s rights champion or head of the university’s womens’ mentoring group? If you complaint about harassment, your diversity representatives are effectively the people who will see this complaint and decide what to do with it and I am never too sure whether they are not rather a part of the problem than the solution.

  2. Louise says:

    To Maria, I just wanted to say– I am so sorry; I think I understand how you feel; and I hope you find some support.

    To Athene– I think Maria’s comment does actually hit the nail on the head. You express your frustration (which I share) with the fact that, for years, “[t]he problems have been identified, they have been reported on in the scholarly press as well as in more mainstream media, yet they don’t go away.” Maria replies, “Everyone stands up … for women’s rights, but not for THAT woman.”

    And she’s right. Most academics and all university managements are happy to deplore sexism in general, in ringing tones. But, if an individual woman complains of sexist treatment, the immediate reflex is to believe that there is something wrong with her.

    No amount of policies and procedures will ever change anything if we are unwilling to put them into practice in individual cases. No amount of recognition that, statistically speaking, women are discriminated against in a wide range of ways will ever change anything unless we accept that the statistics are made up of real, individual women like the one standing before us.

    So, yes, continue to press for policy changes and cultural changes; but put just as much effort into supporting and defending individual women.