Just before Christmas on Twitter I came across a survey being run by the THE asking
THE is running a survey about whether women should champion other women in academic careers. What do you think?
I duly went to this and answered the questions, but I did this with rising frustration. And clearly I was not alone. When I retweeted the original THE request others complained about this. Sarah Kendrew complained ‘I want to fill out this survey but there are so many questions whose phrasing I object to’ and Liz Gloyn said ‘Oh, for the love of… enough with the faux-engineered gender competition!’ To which Sarah Kendrew came back with ‘yes it’s like they engineered the survey questions to be able to publish a clickbait-y headline about the results: “women don’t care that their sisterhood is unfair to men!”’ I tend to agree with these sentiments, although other people (perhaps who hadn’t yet looked at the questions) seemed keener. The list of questions appeared to be loaded to get certain types of answer. I doubt it was prepared with the care social scientists probably like to put into their questionnaires.
By trying to seek information on a reasonable subject, their survey actually makes it very hard to be nuanced: I did try in my replies but the presumption seems to be that women only support women – and of course men only support men. What rubbish! A survey which enquired about support in general and with gender as a minor component would be more interesting and more realistic.
It is true many women like talking to other women in academia. In a field like mine, which is so male-dominated, in part that is because another woman is (still) a relative rarity. But, if I like talking to fellow female physicists, that does not equate to not liking to talk to male physicists. Gender is going to be less relevant than whether they have something interesting to say and are pleasant to be with. I like to think, and I hope I live by this, that I treat people as people. I do not go out of my way to help another scientist by virtue of their gender alone. That isn’t to say I don’t think women deserve support, because of course they do. As do many men. The reason women need ‘more’ support is solely that so often they actually receive less than their male peers. This sad fact can be for many reasons ranging from the senior staff in a department feeling uncomfortable talking to early career women, to the fact that to some people women may not be as visible as men.
Both those reasons indicate why it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking there has to be a female sisterhood looking after young women, to promote their interests and to mentor them. In the abstract it is harder to imagine a senior woman being uncomfortable talking to a female postdoc in the way some male professors might – but it could certainly still happen. It is also rather naïve to think that it is only men who fail to see the early career researchers about them when they happen to be female. In practice there are people of both sexes who are supportive of both sexes. There are also men and women who, having risen up the system, couldn’t give a toss about those behind them. If women are more likely than men to be aware of the challenges facing early career researchers it is probably because they themselves noticed the lack of support as they tried to progress and want the next generation to have it easier. In reality, and way beyond academia (Maggie Thatcher used to be cited as a key example of a queen bee of this sort), some women who made it despite suffering from an absence of concrete mentorship or sponsorship are of the kind to think ‘I made it without anyone taking care of me, so why shouldn’t the next generation?’.
So, although I filled in the survey, I tried to temper my answers where I could (which wasn’t often) to point out that we all should support all young researchers. I wonder if that message will come through when the results are written up.
Let’s not put the onus on women to support women – the few women there are in the professorial ranks have plenty else to be getting on with anyhow, as they get stuck on innumerable committees by virtue of being the only plausible woman who can tick the quota box – and recognize that everyone has a responsibility in this area. Otherwise, we are continuing to propagate a view that men and women really aren’t equal; that women are delicate objects who need cherishing by the kind hand of the nurturing women around them. But men are real men, tough and can only be handled by the greybeards around them, male of course. Never the twain shall meet. Such a view, such a course of action, would be a disaster for young and old, men and women. Come on THE, you can do better than that!