Making the most of our ASSET’s

When it comes to the reality of what it’s really like for women in academic science, it is always useful to have evidence up one’s sleeve to make a point as well as merely be able to relate anecdotes, personal or otherwise. The recent report on the 2016 ASSET survey  provides just such concrete evidence to bolster arguments around Athena Swan action plans or to develop general departmental strategies. This time around, the survey also considered intersectionality issues for gender coupled with race, disability and sexual orientation to show which parts of our workforce face yet further challenges.

ASSET – which stands for the Athena Survey for Science, Engineering and Technology – has been running since 2003, with surveys in 2003/4, 2006 and 2010. I discussed the 2010 survey quite early in my blogging career here. Although the questions have changed somewhat each time, is it possible to say whether things changed over the years? The answer is yes and yes they have, but not that much is the disappointing answer. Women still feel disadvantaged in a number of ways compared with their male counterparts, although the men who responded to the survey on average seem unaware that some of these differences persist. I recommend you read the whole report to get a thorough feel for what the academic workforce, at different levels of seniority, is typically reporting. Here I will just highlight a few key points. It is encouraging to see that both men and women tended to agree that Athena Swan initiatives have had a positive impact on the local environment.

Women continue to feel on average that men are more advantaged – be it due to the encouragement they themselves aren’t given to apply for new jobs or promotion, because men seem to be given less teaching and fewer administrative tasks or because women  feel excluded from unofficial networks and meetings. Women are systematically offered fewer opportunities for training, particularly with regard to leadership and management roles, and feel held back by the long hours culture, something that is especially the case when they also have outside caring responsibilities. None of this will surprise readers. The ability, when answering the survey, to give freeform answers means that there are plenty of useful quotes to illustrate alike how men and women view the current situation. Nevertheless the gaps between the experiences of men and women seem to be narrowing; in many cases the answers to the questions did not throw up significant differences in response, so it would seem we are at least heading in the right direction. Athena Swan has given this work an impetus and direction of travel that perhaps is the most we can yet hope for. Other countries may be less far forward on this journey.

The ASSET 2016 report finishes with a long list of recommendations aimed at reducing the gap between men and women’s experiences yet further. This list contains few surprises but perhaps will serve as a useful kicking-off point for those departments which have yet to engage seriously with the equality agenda. Ensuring that mentoring is in place for all who want it, that workloads are equitably distributed and that training opportunities are open to all are hardly radical ideas but, if actually properly implemented could make a substantial difference to the workforce.

I read this report piecemeal on long plane journeys, as I have just come back from travels to Sydney, Singapore and Hong Kong, amongst other things meeting up with Churchill College alumni in each of these locations. In the first of these places I gave a lecture about the operation of Athena Swan, as Australia sets up a gender equity programme journey under the banner of SAGE (Science Australia Gender Equity) modelled on Athena Swan, as well as my personal experiences of being the University of Cambridge’s Gender Equality Champion. A recording of my talk can be seen here. While in Sydney I also talked about gender issues to a Women in Business lunch hosted at Corrs Chambers Westgarth, although the actual driver for the whole trip was a talk about my science, giving the Dr Peter Domachuk lecture at the University of Sydney about Environmental Scanning Electron Microscopy. In Hong Kong I also gave a talk about gender issues under the HeforShe banner.

Talking to people at these various events simply reinforces my perception of the global reach as well as universal nature of the issues facing professional women. The talk to lawyers and other professionals confirmed to me just how non-unique the issues facing academic women are. Everywhere, they look remarkably similar despite very different sectors and geographies: difficulties reside in moving up the career ladder; many women have a strong feeling that their voices are not heard; and that ‘success’ is defined by a certain narrow set of criteria which do not favour those who perhaps take time out, expend effort on pastoral care or otherwise don’t fit the traditional mould. These topics seem to arise and confound women around the world. Athena Swan may have prompted the Australians to establish something similar, the awards have undoubtedly focussed minds in UK academia, but we are still a very long way from having the problem cracked.


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