This week I attended an event in the University exploring, broadly speaking, how we can do ‘inclusive leadership’ better. Kicked off by a talk by Barbara Stocking, President of the women’s college Murray Edwards, who was talking about the various pieces of research her college has instigated and been involved with (Women Today, Women Tomorrow and Working with Men, both well worth a careful read). We also heard from Angela Strank, Chief Scientist at BP, about their own work. What particularly resonated with me were the ‘clippings’ she produced from her personal file, illustrating how – however slow, however frustrating – progress for gender equality is inching forward. As a geologist, after her PhD in the 70s she was not allowed to go to Antarctica or on offshore oil rigs. I recall a contemporary of mine, an engineer, complaining of these same problems: women were categorically not allowed (possibly legally not allowed) to do these things back then. But what really struck home, for a slightly different reason, was an article from 1988 hideously entitled ‘Women can manage if they really try’ (rather implying that up till then the poor weak women hadn’t been trying hard enough at all to juggle children and career), written upon her return to work at BP after a period of maternity leave and illustrated by a photo of her holding her child.
1988 was a year I had a child too, in my case my second. It was also a year in which I won a prize from the Institute of Physics, receiving the letter while I was still on leave – all of 16 weeks paid leave, plus the (unheard-of-for-an-academic at the time) extra 2 weeks I took of unpaid leave to fit in with nursery and term dates. When asked to send a photograph to illustrate the story in their publication I duly did, with my children. You can see what was published above (grainy and black and white thought it is). Where are the children you might ask? I did. If you look carefully you can see a corner of the baby’s head at the bottom right. All other traces of my maternal activities were deliberately excised. It wouldn’t be appropriate, I was told, it would give the wrong impression. A woman who had just given birth and won a prize was apparently conceptually too difficult for the editors to get their head around, so the children had to be expunged. I was furious then; I still am when I think about it, but it amused Angela Strank when I told her and she was keen to be allowed to use the story herself in the future alongside her own with its worse title but more accommodating photograph.
Leaving my personal reminiscences on one side, the event was a stimulating occasion. Challenged to come up with suggestions of activities and initiatives that the University could undertake, we collectively were not short of ideas ranging from working with schools to remove stereotypes, to introducing reverse mentoring for heads of department (reverse mentoring being a tactic favoured in the Working with Men report). I think over 40 ideas were tabled at the time, some of which will be more feasible than others; some of which offer immediate traction and impact, whereas others may be less likely to do so. I am looking forward to seeing the outcomes, both in the reporting but also the real outcomes that matter. Changes in behaviour (still required in some quarters) will be even more important than changes simply in policy.
The other recent activity on this front that I have engaged in was an afternoon exploring ‘Recruitment Essentials’, a training programme being rolled out to all those involved in interviews and selection across the University to get us to focus on good practice and avoiding pitfalls such as bias. Despite the fact that I was greeted by one of the attendees at my particular session with ‘like you really need this’, I disagree. We can always learn from others and, although I perhaps turned up with a slight feeling that I was unlikely to hear much that was unfamiliar to me, what I did learn from the sharing of experiences – usually of bad practice each of the 15 of us in the room had observed – was that there are plenty of new angles to consider. One totally expected common experience was the asking of completely unacceptable questions, usually somehow involving children but in one case about faith.
Another sort of bad example arose from appointment panel members not simply sticking up for ‘their’ candidate but deliberately trashing another one’s. This tactic can of course lead to a ‘compromise’ candidate being appointed that no one really was championing, simply for that reason when departments are too riven by internal competition and strife. My particular experience of this approach was a bit more personal, when another panel member decided to trash my own qualifications so that my views could be the more easily discarded. (I was a professor at the time.) I never knew whether the fact I was the only woman on that particular panel had any bearing but it left a very sour taste in my mouth. SO much so, that I raised it at my next appraisal, only to be told the ‘offender’ was waiting for me to apologise to him. The logic for that proposed course of action escaped me then as it still does now.
Unsurprisingly, much of the discussion was around one’s own internal biases, trying to tease them out and come up with strategies to make the unconscious conscious and therefore more easily avoided. There is no point pretending that unconscious bias, implicit bias, call it what you will is not liable to get in the way of good decisions and it was drummed into us how much setting out precise criteria and experience/qualifications early on in the process is crucial for any kind of job. Most importantly this needs to be done before the advertisement is drawn up to make sure there is no way of fiddling the outcome to suit one’s prejudices later. Otherwise there is nothing sufficiently clearly written down in the abstract to guide the process before a flesh and blood person turns up, triggering positive or negative but irrelevant reactions.
The University is working hard on its equality and diversity agenda. October saw the launch of the Breaking the Silence Campaign, offering support and structures to ensure those who have been the victim of sexual misconduct feel confident enough to speak up. An increase in reporting of such incidents in one sense should be a source of encouragement that the campaign is working, however discouraging every single incident report may make one feel. In the present global climate that is being revealed post Harvey Weinstein through #metoo and much more, it is more important than ever that long-term offenders are not allowed to ‘get away with it’, and that anyone who thinks academia provides a cosy way to prey on others more vulnerable than them is forced to realise no, it isn’t acceptable any more: their victims will speak up, their own future is at risk.