Loading the Women – or Not?

The question of what should the composition of any team ‘look’ like remains one I feel uncertain about. Whereas a list of a dozen invited speakers who are all males smacks of bias or incompetence rather than a true reflection of those whose work is outstanding, if a senior executive team is small enough, say 4, but is all male can one say the same thing? There was the year my College was run by a predominantly female team (Bursar, Domestic Bursar and Senior Tutor were all female, for instance, as well as myself as Master but the Vice Master was male). Should I have been concerned about the imbalance in the other direction and done something differently?

If a senior executive team is overwhelmingly of one gender how does this distort the issues that get addressed? It shouldn’t of course, but almost certainly it will. In my last post I referred to the fact that no one had stopped the barracking of Jocelyn Bell Burnell when, as the only female student, she entered her Physics lectures. If there had been a female lecturer would that have made a difference? Did the male lecturers just have an extreme lack of imagination about how threatening the atmosphere might feel for that solitary woman, or did they (worse) feel it served her right for entering into male terrain? Would a female lecturer have had the courage to take on the male audience in the hall? At least, one hopes, that that specific situation will never arise again in any lecture theatre around the world.

This week fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger Stephen Curry tweeted

More power to Stephen for doing this, walking the walk as Imperial College’s Assistant Provost for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion and not just talking the talk.

The next part of his story was less public. The organisers are obviously quite thick-skinned, since they approached yet another UK male when Stephen said no! He too declined but presumably the organisers will keep ignoring the issue and eventually find some man who has a gap in his diary and does agree to turn up and talk. It is clear – because the next man approached said so privately – that the gender composition of the group was not mentioned when this follow-up invitation was issued. The organisers must be pretty impervious not to feel some compunction at the make-up of their list of invitees.

I must admit my first reaction when asked to participate in some event is not, but perhaps should be, to enquire the make-up of the speaker/panel list. It is often the case you can’t find out anyhow, if many people are being asked in parallel. Perhaps embarrassment later in the day when it becomes apparent that there is a massive imbalance often stops people from then saying they will drop out to allow the introduction of someone of the minority gender to participate. But surely, surely, by now there have been enough examples of ridiculously imbalanced lists for organisers to grasp the fundamental point: an all male (or all female) line-up is not fit for the 21st century. Since invitations mean exactly that, it should not be beyond any group’s capability to find a good balance (and not just by gender) of those to invite.

However, it does seem to be the case that women are more likely than men to turn down speaker invitations. There is evidence from different studies to this effect: some years ago I wrote about one particular study in the field of Evolutionary Biology. Women decline for all kinds of reasons ranging from the much-cited and challenging childcare problem to the fact that they get asked to do so many things, sit on so many committees and so on, that they simply can’t fit a trip into their diary. The childcare problem should of course apply to fathers too, and I believe increasingly does, but it has not yet made a visible dent in the number of male speakers accepting invitations. The problem of women, when in a minority in a field, getting lumbered with more of the ‘we must have a woman on this committee’ is not likely to go away any time soon – until there is a better gender balance across the board.

We do need, as a society, to be careful not to put the onus on the women always to accept invitations. Feeling that one is letting the side down because you can’t face another trip, or another committee can be insidious. Refusing to be an ‘expert’ with local or national media just so that there finally is a woman’s voice on the radio is sometimes the right thing to do but (I know, I’ve been there) can lead to a nasty feeling of guilt. Most men, I suspect, don’t have to battle these negative emotions just for trying to preserve some semblance of sanity and work-life balance.

The answer in the long term is of course to try to ensure that children get plenty of opportunity to see careers in a non-stereotyped way essentially from birth. Then perhaps our children and grandchildren will not still be battling away at the same gendered problems, calling out manels for the stupidity they are or worrying about whether the executive team is appropriately balanced. The best people will simply fill the roles, regardless of their sex (or colour of skin, or sexual orientation or….). We have a long way to go, but that should not deter us from trying.

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One Response to Loading the Women – or Not?

  1. Anne says:

    This study suggest that women academics do not decline more talk invitations then their male colleagues: https://www.pnas.org/content/115/1/104

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