Moving on from Tokenism

Last week much was made of the fact that, finally, all the UK’s FTSE100 companies have at least one female Board member with Glencore, the last to make the grade, appointing the Canadian Patrice Merrin as a non-executive director. Vince Cable, who has been pushing for this for some years, declared this a ‘historic day for the FTSE’. But does one woman on a board, or indeed on any committee, make any difference? What burden of expectations are put on such an individual if somehow they are supposed to represent half the population and/or turn around a company’s attitude and fortunes by doing things the ‘female’ way?

The trouble is, thinking in terms like this rather miss the point. Of course it’s important that Boards have female members, and not just one of them per board. But it is dangerous to think that each board has to have a woman because she’ll bring a woman’s perspective. And if she does also that the board will instantly listen to what she says and act upon it. Neither of those statements can be taken as likely to be true. Having a female board member is maybe a step forward but it is only the beginning of the story not the end.

I have come across a fair number of women who absolutely aren’t interested in ‘women’s’ issues. At worst, this may be because they feel they never got any help themselves so why should they help others (or even that they don’t want other women around them to dilute their own visibility and impact); more common these days is that they don’t think there should be any special pleading for women. But there is much more to having women on boards/committees than simply that they are women and might occasionally be expected to ask ‘hey, have you thought about how this policy affects other women?’. Thinking about gender has to permeate all that an organisation does. Women should sit on boards and committees because there are some very smart women out there who have much to offer (or would have if they hadn’t been squelched comprehensively on the way up by one means or another) but they shouldn’t be expected to carry the burden of ‘women’s issues’. These must be everyone’s concern.

If we move away from the FTSE world and into universities, the EU has made this point very clearly in its rules for Horizon2020, something Curt Rice has recently written about. Every application (and this also applies to the ERC, where the Gender Action Plan discusses issues more specifically) has to discuss how it deals with three aspects of gender:

• Gender balance in research teams;
• Gender balance in decision-making;
• Integrating gender/sex analysis in research and innovation content.

The first two perhaps relate are somewhat comparable to the question of women on boards and are appropriate aspirations. In a field like physics, it is often hard to see how the last is relevant: cold atoms don’t have a gender, nor does a differential equation. But, as you move towards biology the gender of the animal from which cells or tissues are taken, for instance, does turn out to matter in some classes of experiments; and, if you are considering human health it is increasingly clear that clinical trials carried out on male patients may be most misleading regarding how females respond. If you aren’t sure about this, look at the Gendered Innovations website where specific examples are given. The reality is that scientists (typically male) have spent many years not realising that such matters ought to be worried about, probably thereby putting some women’s lives at risk since they can react differently to medication. It needn’t have been a woman who pointed this out, but it most certainly did need someone to do it. Repeatedly. And now it is enshrined in the principles of project funding. Journals are following suit. It’s high time because without this information much biomedical research is liable to be less than helpful if not actually seriously flawed. That is possibly something that FTSE companies working in the pharmaceutical sector should also be focussing on, whether or not they have women on their boards. These and other topics will be discussed at this week’s EU Gender Summit, both science and policy aspects. I am sorry not to be there.

I think for all of us there are many things that seem ‘normal’ – until someone highlights them – but which are actually deeply biased. Having women around who may have relevant (and possibly negative) experiences may help to bring things out in the open. And such things still persist. To take a specific example of how maternity leave is handled. The ERC explicitly extends periods of eligibility for its different grants by 18 months per child; RCUK has recently published a useful overview of how they collectively handle maternity, paternity and parental leave. But some other funders, smaller medical charities for instance, are still only just getting to grips with this issue. A Cambridge colleague who came to me for advice regarding her own post-maternity-leave funding was able to send the RCUK statement to her funder who has agreed to an effective extension of her window of eligibility. Possibly this is being done as a one-off; I hope the charity will move to make it ongoing policy.

We ought to be moving rapidly to a place where everyone, male and female, is alert to all such issues and it isn’t simply the few women who sit at the top table who could or should speak out. So, let’s stop focussing on the tokenism implied by celebrating the fact that every FTSE100 Board has a woman on it and start actually ensuring that every woman has an equal chance, with her male colleagues, to end up sitting on that board.


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1 Response to Moving on from Tokenism

  1. Rachel Segalman says:

    I recently moved from an organization that had embarked on a “Diversity Initiative” of which I was an outspoken critic. I’m sure my criticisms could have been perceived as “not thinking pleading is necessary, anymore,” but the real arguments were a bit more nuanced. I am frustrated by diversity programs that explicitly dole out special favors based on gender or ethnicity alone (particularly as candidates for positions) as it seems to create more bias in the organization as a whole. These types of programs are frequently the brain child of the HR department. I much prefer programs that both directly confront implicit bias in the local or broader scientific community and seek to make sensible accommodations for child-bearing and other specific instances (many of which affect both men and women, though women in larger numbers). Having a woman on every board (or even every academic community) is not only a faulty way to deal with implicit bias (as you point out), but is actually a bias in its own right. At least in the US, it appears that most female faculty members are involved in a great deal more service activity than their male counterparts due to an administrative need to have representation on every committee from a relatively small portion of the population.

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