On quotas in Academia – do we need them?


As a graduate student I was asked to participate in a `women in science’ group. I refused. I was an old(er) grad student compared to my cohort, my goal was to get in and get out as fast as practically possible, so that I could be gainfully employed. I’d spent years working very low-paying jobs and I was over it, anything optional that was going to delay me from finishing my PhD quickly, I wasn’t going to do. I also thought all of the feminism of my mother’s generation had acheived the goal, that the issues were over. I grew up at a time when `girls didn’t really study physics’. You could study physics, it wasn’t barred to you as a girl, but people thought girls were pretty weird if they studied physics and it wasn’t exactly encouraged. I thought all that was over. I was 32, not 15 and the world had changed, everyone knew that girls could do anything a boy could do. I believed in the `trickle down’ theory of academic diversity, as more women gained entry, the academy would just naturally balance out.

I was an idiot. I should have known better by simple observation. I was naive and I wasn’t even that youthful, so I can’t even use the ‘lack-of-experience’ card.

When I started my PhD, there were two female full Professors, out of a Department of around 40. There were a few other womn instructors, but no assistant or associate professors on the tenure track. There were a few new faculty hires during my time as a graduate student and not a single one was female. During one of my first (physics) conferences in Toronto – I still remember that strange feeling of walking into reception and looking out among the sea of scientists thinking ‘Am I the only woman here?’. Around 15 years ago, I moved to the UK to take up my post-doc, there were more women at my new institution – post-docs and graduate students mostly- but, again, only two senior women out of 50 senior staff and no one in between.

Initally, this very obvious lack of other women in the room did not unduly suprise me. I’d worked in all sorts of male-dominated environments – many of which were fantastically supportive of women – both the companies and the colleagues (I’m looking at you Wildwater, Ltd , Chattooga). At that early career stage, I was just getting on with my research and, being independently funded, I was only really answerable to my funders and my own production. I have slowly realized over the last 15 or so years that the reason why I didn’t like women in science clubs is because I don’t want these organizations to exist simply because I DON’T WANT THIS TO BE AN ISSUE. I want to believe in a meritocracy where everyone is known professionally, for what they do, not for what gender, race or sexual orientation they are. This mythological world should exist – and I really want it to exist – but this isn’t where we are – and I am not sure we are even close to this ideal reality.

Now, I am (perhaps) less of an idiot. What is clear more than ever to me now, is that we are not going acheive equality by patiently waiting. There are some slow changes happening. Academia talks about these issues a lot more than they used to. We are at least trying to pay attention to unconscious bias and these are all good things. But with these good things also comes an awful lot of backlash (is Athena Swan really working?) and in many cases even with a fair start, institutions revert to being male dominated – Computer programming used to be `women’s work’, now it is a male-dominated field.

How long do are women meant to wait for equality to just naturally arise? I recently heard an excellent discussion with Helen Lewis and Polly Toynbee. At one stage in the discussion Lewis was talking about her research on suffregettes and Toynbee asked her what she thought about the suggestion made by some (not by Ms Toynbee herself) that the more militant suffragettes really might have gone too far because women would have gotten the vote anyway. Helen Lewis’ response? “That’s like saying they would have gotten the vote if they had just asked nicely.” When in reality the proposal for women’s suffrage had been tabled by governments year after year and was quite controversial. There were plenty of men and women who thought that women shouldn’t be voting. Despite years of organization, lobbying and peaceful demonstration in The Equal Rights Amendment in the US HAS NEVER BEEN RATIFIED, even though it has be re-introduced every year since 1982, still no dice. Why has something so simple as a bill – which only wants to ensure that the other 51% of the population in the US is guaranteed equality under the law – never been passed? This just seems absurd to me, democracy is supposed to be about equal rights for all and why wouldn’t any democrat (with a small d) want to support that?

So what is next, how do we fix the academy which is still largely failing when it comes to diversity. Does science need quotas?

I don’t know, but I do know this is where many of us who have been thinking about these issues stop short. There is not overwhelming evdience that quotas always work so well and there is also an inordinate amount of backlash from quotas, they remain highly controversial. I imagine I will even get some backlash for just mentioning this. Personally, I think quotas can be a force for good, they can sometimes force a change a culture; but then again I don’t want to discrimiate against anyone as we should all have `equality under the law’. Most female scientists I know want to be known for their science and they want to be able to compete in a fair environment, where you aren’t judged by your gender, but the reality is that often this is not the case – we are often not on a level playing field but rather are trying to forge up the hill while others are running on flat ground.

In reality, entry into and promotion within academia is often opaque and if we are truthful – quite subjective. It is difficult in academia, to decide who the *best* person is for an academic job. When a member of faculty is employed, they are generally hired for their research and their ability to run a research group. But research scientists (and most academics) are a broad church, so how do you compare them? Applicant X has 50 research papers, spread over a variety of journals and has raised 3 million in research funding. Applicant Y has 25 research papers in good solid technical journals and has raised 2.5 million in research funding. Applicant Z has 15 research papers all in high impact journals and has raised 250k in research funding. They all work in different fields. They could all fit in different niches in terms of teaching. Who do you hire? How do you decide? Neglecting for the moment that X,Y and Z might have had better *success* in publications, for instance, just because of their gender or race or if they worked for said famous person in the first place, how do you actually decide who is *better*? This, often times, is where unconscious bias comes into play, this is where the desire to hire ‘people like me’ can rule the day, reinforcing the academic mono-culture.

I feel uneasy about quotas, as I think many of us in academia do, but what is the alternative? Trickle down employment? What I do know, is that things are getting better for women in science (and other minorities in the field) at a glacial pace and doesn’t seem like it is ever going to change. I didn’t realize until quite recently that people had been saying to female students in the sciences since the 1970s that things would probably equal out in the next 30 years. It’s been almost 50 years and it’s still not leveling out, perhaps we need some kind of shock to the system. Perhaps we need to force the change. Were I still younger maybe I could just ask nicely for some fairness. Now that I am older, I can see why the suffragettes were burning buildings down.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain
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