Celebrating Success (Even if Progress is Slow)

Last week (the lack of) women in science actually made it onto BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, when Lesley Yellowlees – President-elect of the Royal Society of Chemistry – spoke out about the lack of women in her own and other scientific disciplines. She got much coverage in the media in general that day, in advance of her keynote speech at Science Scotland (currently she is Vice Principal and Head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh). Her headline message (or at least what was picked out as the headline; one can only assume she did actually say it) was

It’s clear that the UK is half-a-century behind when it comes to advancing the cause of women scientists.

This was the line that stuck in people’s minds, and was picked up by Angela Saini in her Guardian blog. I had dinner with Lesley earlier this spring when I was in Edinburgh, and I appreciate her concern and that this is a matter close to her heart, but I think this statement, catchy though it may be, is neither really accurate nor helpful. Undoubtedly if you make, as she seems to have done, a direct comparison of the numbers of women elected to the National Academy of Sciences this year (24 out of 84) and compare it with the equivalent elections to the UK’s Royal Society (2 out of 44, as I discussed in a recent post), things look spectacularly bad. If those numbers held up year on year it might be an admissible failing on the UK’s part, but I haven’t seen the evidence to suggest that over time the discrepancy is as bad as that. It may be, I just don’t know. Even so, numbers are not the only part that matters. Firstly, the US has – at least at times – operated a policy of affirmative action which enables people to point a finger at female hires hinting that they were appointed only because they were women. As the relatively recent 2010 MIT report stated, there is a

perception that standards for hiring and promotion of women faculty are lower than for male faculty demonstrated,

This leaves women feeling anxious and insecure in unhelpful ways even if the numbers look superficially encouraging. Secondly, as I discussed recently,  there is the USA’s unhelpful attitude towards maternity leave and how this complicates work-life balance and academic progression. Finally, there is the question of how good the quality of the academic working environmentactually is, something that matters hugely too; the book I reviewed recently suggests things aren’t really very good on that front either in US Laboratories. I have found it telling that when I have written blogposts about the Athena Swan awards, commenters from the US have sighed ‘why don’t we have such a scheme here’. So, poor as the UK’s statistics may be, I simply don’t believe we are half a century behind the US. After all, I was a postdoc in the US around 1980 and at that point I was the first female postdoc in my engineering department at Cornell, and the University used affirmative action to create their first faculty position held by a woman anywhere in the Engineering School. No, we’re way ahead of that here and that was only just over 30 years ago; Lesley’s ‘half a century’ is undoubtedly an exaggeration.

Meanwhile, the Athena Swan awards go from strength to strength over here. More and more universities and departments are achieving their benchmarks, and the recent tranche of winners expanded those numbers further. Last week I went to Leeds to speak at their WISET event celebrating both two departmental awards and also a photographic exhibition of portraits of some of their most successful women, from PhD students to professors. It was a joyful evening to congratulate themselves on how far they have got, whilst still remembering how much further there is to go. For my talk, I was asked, amongst other things, to talk about what ‘Utopia’ would look like, once all departments had achieved Athena awards and there was no longer an issue for women in science. Hard though it is to imagine such a world, where there is no gender pay gap, promotion rates for men and women are identical and there are so many excellent female role models the term has disappeared as outdated and unnecessary, I think the key thing would be when everyone appreciated that all individuals are different, not that men and women are different.

One key factor that was very evident at this enjoyable and successful evening (aside from the fact that the Leeds University catering is excellent), was the explicit buy-in from the university’s leadership. Michael Arthur, their VC, was there to make the welcoming speech but stayed not only through the formal part of the evening, but through all the informal part afterwards when people mingled, admired the photographs – and  of course the food. He said to me how valuable it was for him to get opportunities like this to meet some of the junior staff. I know lecturer Sarah Staniland – a nanotechnologist making headlines with her science on magnetic bacteria and who had been a key player in driving the event as a member of the WISET Steering Committee and the originator of my own invitation – had a long chat with him. I think there was even an opportunity for her to pin him down to committing money towards the future of their work; indeed the VC’s parting shot to me was that the evening had cost him £300,000, presumably (if this follows through and was not just an offhand nicety on which to end the evening) to cover resourcing of post(s) to facilitate future departmental awards in the years ahead. Also there, speaking up and pushing things forward, was Dawn Freshwater Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Staff and Organisational Effectiveness, whose responsibility the diversity agenda is. Relatively recently appointed to this post, she has plenty of time ahead in her term of office to drive through major cultural changes – and is clearly determined to do so. This buy in from senior leadership is vital for universities for progress to be made, a subject I have discussed before.

So, good luck to Leeds! But there a few caveats I want to make about those putting applications in for Athena Swan awards based on conversations I have had with various people in various universities.

1 Do not just expect a junior woman to take the lead, because she is a woman. I came across a case recently where a newly appointed lecturer, in post for less than a year, was being asked to spearhead the departmental bid. This is undoubtedly a case of a woman being asked to take on this task with no thought of her as an individual. A new lecturer – male or female – should have establishing their research and teaching as their top priorities. Putting an Athena Swan submission together is time-consuming and requires knowing your way around departmental and university resources and politics. So, to my mind, an ideal person to do this is a senior male – if it is a male doing it, it strengthens the case by signifying the department sees this as a departmental problem, not simply the women’s problem.

2 Even if a department has received an award – of whatever colour – they should continue to consider whether they are doing things as well as they could. Not so long ago I heard of a department with a Silver award, where they still insisted on holding departmental seminars at 5pm, a time inconvenient for many parents (of either gender). A young mother was being taken to task for never attending in ways that made her both uncomfortable and angry.

3 When universities have a few departments with awards, they can – and should – undoubtedly share what they believe is their own best practice. But every department has to work out what their own issues are and a single template cannot fit all; shortcuts of cutting and pasting someone else’s submission cannot be a solution.

So, congratulations to Leeds and other recent Athena Swan award winners. We should celebrate their success, whilst recognizing we have a long way to go even if we are not a full half century behind the UK.


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3 Responses to Celebrating Success (Even if Progress is Slow)

  1. BB says:

    I was hoping you might post on this issue. I heard the radio 4 interview randomly and was shouting at the radio!

    It is crazy to take one number from one year and use it as a metric for anything. The US appears to have a far worse record regarding work life balance than the UK and I think the only possible way in which this might be helpful to female academics is if it is so awful that parents of either gender are equally discriminated against.

    Actually I think there may be something in that – as the US has more equality in maternity/paternity packages (ie. hardly anything in either case) than the UK currently does.

    Either way the US model of science is certainly NOT one to aspire to…particularly when we outperform them on so many metrics of academic merit, as well as actually being allowed to spend time with our families.

  2. Stephen Moss says:

    Balancing the needs of all can be a challenge. At our Institute we have a lot of clinician scientists who don’t get out of clinic until 5 p.m. (this is embedded in their NHS commitments), so we used to have staff meetings at that time. But this was inconvenient to other staff, both male and female, so we switched back to mid-morning meetings. This is fine for the academics, but I haven’t seen any of our clinical colleagues at one of those meetings for several years. The same thing occurs with seminars. We often have visiting speakers whose subject matter is of great interest to the clinicians, but unless we timetable their talks to start at 5.00 p.m., the clinicians won’t be there. I’d be interested to know of other Institutions who have had to confront this problem, and of any creative solutions.

  3. Megan Cully says:

    This is a biological issue, not a national one. There is a paucity of women at the top in businesses, academic institutions, and governments around the world. Women are more likely then men to sacrifice their careers to become care-givers. Running a lab requires an enormous investment of time. A 40-hour work week is woefully insufficient, and as such women lab heads must choose between a satisfying career where her kids are raised by other people and a less satisfying career where she can have dinner with her children. Unfortunately, the biological window during which we can have children coincides with the time in our careers when we need to be establishing labs. I applaud such incentives as the Wellcome’s Career Re-entry fellowships, which aim to temporally separate early child-rearing days and early lab-establishment days. I encourage any women looking to get back into the lab to investigate such schemes.

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