Inching Forward

This week Cambridge University held its annual Diversity event, hosted by the Vice Chancellor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, always known as Borys. He has been an outstanding leader on this, as on so many fronts, but he is retiring as VC at the end of the academic year. Even at his initial interview he made it plain how close this particular topic was to his heart and he has constantly led from the front and supported those of us most closely involved in making change happen. Progress has been made, but Borys – like many of us – is undoubtedly saddened that it hasn’t been faster. Come the new academic year we will have attained 20% women amongst the Professoriate. One can either think wow, this is real progress (remember, back in 1998 when I was promoted to professor I was the first woman to make this grade in any of the physical sciences); or think this is an appallingly low number. Both reactions seem legitimate to me.

The meeting this week was in part an opportunity to take stock of where we’d come from and in part to reflect on where we are now. Speaker after speaker commented on the issue of our ‘culture’ as a large part of the problem. Cambridge has made real strides, and the Athena Swan process has been or is in the process of being adopted by departments all across the university. Whatever I may feel about the process now it has become so ubiquitous and generic, it has undoubtedly been hugely influential in prompting action across the board. I just worry that it is not necessarily still provoking the reflection about what is really needed in each different department in my university or elsewhere: Athena Swan is not (or at least should not be) a tick box activity.

Thorough and sensible policies are vital, plus the action plans as required in Athena Swan submissions, but these will not produce a genuinely equal, supportive environment for everyone without ensuring the local culture changes too. Every part of an institution will have its own peculiar and possibly unpleasant little tics and pockets of resistance. It is easier said than done to root these out. I’m sure every reader of this blog will recognise one or more of these characters and characteristics:

  • The senior professor who pays lip service to equality and then either hits on or ignores junior women around him. The former can lead to a toxic environment, the latter can lead to a direct (as opposed to indirect) career blight.
  • The supervisor or group leader who only pays attention to their junior clones and who is dismissive of anyone who shows signs of weakness or anxiety. Not for them to nurture future talent unless they recognise their younger self in the student.
  • The head of department who demands that all job advertisements stress only candidates who can demonstrate ground-breaking, world-leading and highly original research should bother to apply. Such words are part of the cultural barrier which deters many, both men and women.
  • The promotion committee member who likewise expects to see such standard phrases to be used in reference letters if an applicant is to be successful, along with publications in high impact journals, whatever a paper’s intrinsic worth. Such people may pay zero attention to whether or not the applicant has done anything for the wider good, including pastoral care, shouldered a heavy lecturing load, substantial committee work or mentoring.

These characterisations are not particularly extreme, or indeed rare, and each needs a different approach to resolving. Only in a few such cases is policy alone like to cure the problem. Policy is, as the mathematicians would say, a necessary but not sufficient condition. However the more people who appreciate the policy aims and implications and are willing to challenge the behaviour described in the above bullet points, the better.

In my own talk I apparently said ‘men are more powerful’ when they speak out. What I meant by that is that a man speaking out is often more effective (rather than intrinsically more powerful) because it is the more unexpected. It can jolt other men into realising that perhaps their behaviour is out of line. A woman, particularly if she is the butt of interruptions or other aggressive behaviour in a meeting, can be strongly empowered and supported by other people round the table calling out such behaviour. It is often harder for the person concerned, but others can speak out. A man watching inappropriate behaviour towards a young colleague can intercede with impunity when the victim may feel paralysed. However, policy is never going to resolve such matters: interruptions cannot be forbidden and a list of inappropriate comments cannot be written down and outlawed (although of course pure misogyny and harassment can be).

When it comes to expectations at appointments and promotion meetings, I am beginning to see a change in attitude. Just last week I watched a man express concern that we might be slipping into the bad habits of unconscious bias when comparing a male and female candidate. Everyone round the table thought about this, discussed the matter and decided on this occasion we were not. Nevertheless it was a timely and appropriate reminder to check thought processes before going too far. I am heartened more and more by observing such challenges – and also about challenges about potential double standards, for instance when demanding demonstrable evidence from women candidates whilst potential is thought to be good enough for men. Oh there are so many ways unconscious bias can slip into our processes.

Less common as yet seems to be really serious thought about the advertisements that are put out. Too often – even if the boiler plate about minorities being encouraged etc is included (and even that is not always the case ) – stand-out words are used as requirement which may put off the more modest of either gender. Is it really necessary to state that applicants need to be internationally leading, or doing cutting-edge research? Does that really only put of those candidates whom you don’t want to apply (who can anyway be rejected if they do) and none of the ones you do? I am sure my own university believes it would only ever appoint the very best, so I see no need to put in words designed to scare the brilliant but diffident off. Nor do I think anything like sufficient progress has been made in reconsidering what academia really wants of its academics in 2017. The model still smacks of something at least 50 years old (with the added ‘bonus’ of impact factor and REFability), rather than recognizing what universities have become with all their diverse strands and needs. (I refer the reader to the book we published 3 years ago that I still think needs much more careful reading and digestion across the sector The Meaning of Success.)

Nevertheless I would say that for my own university, progress has been made. As I reflected in my talk, nearly 20 years ago and soon after my own promotion to professor, someone very senior (whom I’ll leave anonymous) could say to me that they thought ‘physics had been sorted out once I’d been promoted’. I don’t believe anyone would think that was an adequate response these days to comments on a department’s overall shortcomings: one professor does not a gender-equal department make. So substantial progress has been made in recognizing the scale of the problems; recognizing that if women are expressing discomfort at their experiences or are not being appointed or promoted in line with the size of the pool or at a comparable rate to men, work has to be done. Despite my frequent feelings of frustration at the slow pace of change, I need to remind myself from time to time, we are at least inching towards a better place.



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3 Responses to Inching Forward

  1. Julia says:

    I’m trying very hard not to write a bitter comment under this… It’s nice to see acknowledgement that things like caring for students, good teaching, proactive committee work etc are not always valued enough yet. I find it a difficult situation when I can see some progress but am still not at the receiving end of it. So now I’m leaving…

    • I’m so sorry your experiences have been so negative you are leaving. Things still have so far to go to sort out our workplaces even if, as I say, some progress is being made.

  2. NQ says:

    B! B, B, B!

    That second bullet point is an exact likeness of my old supervisor in the US. Our goals as students in the 6-to-8-year PhD programs were to become him, and we were all aware of it. Of course, it is a lot more difficult for a woman than a man to become him, which is probably why he’s graduated roughly 100 men and exactly 4 women with the PhD degree.

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