No More ‘Male by Default’ Please

Another year, another International Women’s Day. This year the strapline is ‘be bold for change’. A good motto but many will feel that boldness is dangerous in the face of opposition or incomprehension. Incomprehension is perhaps commoner than one thinks: people stuck in a time warp who genuinely don’t realise how much default behaviour and stereotyping means the playing field remains tilted at a significant angle. Let me share some recent vignettes – from the bubble that is the world of higher education that I live in – to illustrate what I mean, all three arising from men who I am sure were entirely well-intentioned but simply out of touch and ill-informed. The age of the men, the youngest of whom must have been at least 60, may in part explain why they are glued resolutely in a different age, but these are still – in at least two of the cases – active and in positions of power.

Vignette 1: This is perhaps the easiest for me to forgive as the commenter is probably in his 80s and seemed genuinely bemused. He’d heard me give a talk – mainly about science but in which I’d included (as my intention always is now) some issues around gender – and wrote afterwards to say how surprised he was by some of the things I said on this front. In his day, he said, there had been many women at his (engineering) place of work and he didn’t think there had ever been discrimination. I responded, asking him how many women had progressed to leadership positions, to which he replied

“Yes, I agree with you, the women researchers we had over the years showed little upward progression but I don’t think that was because of any prejudice against them – they all moved eventually for motherhood or to follow their husbands.”

That sort of attitude would have been very common not so many years ago. I hope it isn’t reflected amongst those still actively considering who should be leaders. The presumption that lack of progression is the woman’s ‘fault’ can all to easily lead to feeling it is OK to do nothing.

Vignette 2: This one is hearsay, a contribution from a senior leader to a group discussion considering diversity issues over dinner and reported back to me in tones of disbelief. The man in question raised the issue of an appointment where the panel had consisted of 4 women and 1 man. They had gone on to appoint a woman, so he’d apparently asked the university whether there was guidance on gender balance for panels. A number of people present pointed out that for generations panels of 5 men had appointed men without anyone being worried.

That wouldn’t, of course, be sufficient of a defence if no man at all had been present, or indeed had positive discrimination been in action, but there was nothing to suggest this at all. It is true that, based on my own experience of being a lone woman amongst (many more) men in various situations in past years, I would say a dissenting voice of one – particularly if dissenting on grounds associated with gender – is unlikely to make much difference: having a lone man – or conversely a lone woman – is unlikely to be best practice. Nevertheless the apparent belief that because a predominantly female panel had appointed a woman there must be something fishy going on so that then (and presumably only then) the composition should be scrutinised indicates just how deep-grained the male presumption of male superiority is. It is very salutary for men to find themselves in a minority to discover what it feels like for women, for ethnic minorities etc. Nevertheless, as a lone voice I guess occasionally one ends up being the voice of conscience, which feeds into…

Vignette 3: At a dinner a couple of years ago I sat next to a senior member of a university who, during the course of his long and distinguished career (not all of which was in the higher education sector) must have made innumerable appointments. I asked him how his organisation dealt with unconscious bias training, to which his answer was ‘what’s that, I’ve never heard of it’. My heart sank. I hope, two years on, there are fewer people who might respond that way but I’m not convinced there are none (and if you want a quick refresher course, try the Royal Society’s briefing as one example among many).

I am getting fed up with arguments about facilitating women’s progression, or even getting more girls into science, always being couched in terms of the woman/girl having to be the one to change. She needs to have more confidence, be prepared to speak up, negotiate, perhaps even deny herself the opportunity to have children….the list of things that are considered as the woman’s responsibility can be long. We should instead be thinking in terms of why the 21st century produces women/girls who aren’t confident and what happens when they try to speak up or perhaps negotiate over pay. We need, as a society, to realise that being pregnant takes (on average) 9 months, but bringing up children – although it takes much longer – need not (and in general should not) be done by the mother alone. Nevertheless it remains sadly true that societal values intrinsically if implicitly put the onus for changing the world on the women.

To change this requires recognition of where the problems lie and who can change them. It is incumbent that the leadership – female or, statistically more probably, male – takes control to drive things forward. In universities one simple place to start would be by making it a requirement that incentives do not (unintentionally) favour those things that men are most likely to do and women less likely to be offered. If pastoral care is valued, everyone should be expected to do their bit. On the other hand, if it isn’t considered an item for promotion because it isn’t valued, then it is equally important that everyone should be expected to do their bit. We cannot have parts of an academic’s role which are key to promotion put out of the reach of sections of the workforce simply because they are pushed into the delivery of other (vital) tasks which don’t score promotion Brownie points. A level playing field (to use that overworked phrase) means not only what it says but also – in my view – uniform coverage, not that some parts are inaccessible to certain members of the workforce.

It’s time to be bold for change and change that mind set so that those – typically men – in power reconsider what actions are most likely to work for the entire workforce. And then make sure they do.

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