Spreading the Word, Drop by Drop

There are times when I feel as if I’m talked out about gender. I know what the issues are, I’ve written and spoken about them often enough; I’ve dug up and read through some of the relevant papers (though that hardly makes me an expert in the field) and I’ve put the arguments across in many different fora both publicly and privately. Regular readers of this blog will be well aware that I write a lot about the problems (and opportunities) for women in science and sometimes I feel ‘I’ve done this and it’s time for me to stop‘.

Unfortunately, of course it isn’t. There are so many places where ignorance of the problems, if not downright malevolence persists. If you wonder about the latter you only have to read this or this, just from the last week, to know that there is plenty of malevolence out there. As far as I can see the tech/computing/gaming community – which these examples come from – is worse than most, which cannot be unconnected with the spectacularly low number of women working there. On the other hand the ignorance is often of the most well-intentioned kind, from people who have never had to face up to the tedious reality that too many women, young and old, still have to encounter and so have never stopped to think whether the social constructs in our society are ‘fair’. (And of course, for every time I write the word ‘gender’ or ‘woman’ here, you can really replace it with any other minority; however I will stick with writing what I know about.)

There are times when I would like to lay down this mantle, this feeling of responsibility, but I suspect that would be letting the side down, if it is appropriate to talk about sides when we should all be in this together. I wish there were more people who would stand up and talk about the facts, as dispassionately as they like – after all it wouldn’t ‘do’ for a woman to get emotional, although perhaps a man could get away with it – but they should ram them home on every occasion when they can see a conversation, an interview, an appointment or a promotion committee running aground on unconscious bias or the cultural baggage acquired via the lazy short-cut of stereotyping.

But anytime I start to feel like this, perhaps in the weariness of the start of the academic year or the sense that I have deployed these arguments too many times before and they have merely fallen on deaf ears, something rises up to remind me that I and thou may be well-informed about the harsh realities but too many decent folk have never had occasion or prompt to think about them. Just recently over a dinner table with a delightfully thoughtful and erudite gentleman I was brought up short when I mentioned in passing the fact that too often letters of reference contained subtly gendered adjectives and phrases that could, all too easily, damage a female applicant’s chances of a job. This gentleman, who in the course of his long life had doubtless been involved in many job searches and appointments, looked startled and asked for more information. I was perfectly willing to provide it (although over the fine food it hardly seemed the moment to start googling for the actual supporting scholarly articles one might like to adduce as evidence) and he seemed to lap it up. Will it remain in his mind when next he appoints someone? Who knows, but one can but try.

Drop by drop, one step at a time…… it hardly amounts to a revolution but it is a sine qua non if progress is to be made.

Shortly after that another communication, this time via email, also brought home to me that small actions can make a difference, at least at an individual level. This time it was an email from a woman at some other university who let me know that her head of department had read my post about the Royal Society’s University Research Fellows and had bethought him- or her-self (not specified) to look out this woman and encourage her to ‘get writing that application‘. If every head of a science and engineering department in the country did that for just one woman who otherwise, without that nudge, would not apply then quickly the percentage of female applicants for these fellowships would rise to a more tolerable level. And if they started doing it for just one such woman I would wager there would be a cascade of senior individuals in these departments encouraging others likewise to apply – sincel higher education is a competitive place and it wouldn’t do to let the head of department’s favourites get an unfair advantage over one’s own, would it? So, drop by drop, maybe such seemingly small actions could improve the world.

I don’t know. I only know that, when the feeling of déjà vu creeps up on me, as it does from time to time, when the thought of speaking at yet another event on the subject fills me with less than enthusiasm, I realise I have a voice that is listened to and I should not waste it. This week it’s a discussion at the Cambridge Union, sadly if unsurprisingly involving the usual suspects from Cambridge: Ottoline Leyser, Patricia Fara, my successor as STEMM gender equality champion Anne Davis and myself plus Sunetra Gupta from Oxford. For this youthful audience, which I hope will contain at least as many men as women although I fear it will not, I must remember that they are neither familiar with the challenges nor with the possible solutions and what seems to me obvious and well-worn by this point may be helpfully illuminating and original for them.

I must not let my frustrations at the slow pace of change from when I set out to now prevent me making what contribution I can. But I could and do call upon more mid-to-senior individuals to stand up and be counted. Mug up on the evidence and push back when faced with #everydaysexism. Call people out and keep doing so – in committees, in the lab, in the street and in the media – until the world of STEM, or perhaps I just mean the world, looks at people as people and not as ‘us’ and ‘them’.


A primer of essential reading for those who want to take up my challenge (but there is far more out there):

Excellent, comprehensive background texts: Virginia Valian Why So Slow? And Cordelia Fine Delusions of Gender.
Family life Ottoline Leyser: Mothers and Science: 64 Ways to have it all  Busting some of the myths about successful science careers and having a family.
Gendered letters of reference: J. Madera, M. Hebl and R. Martin in the Journal of Applied Psychology, explored by me here and here.
Unconscious bias: CA. Moss-Racusin, JF Dovidio, VL Brescolli, MJ Graham and J Handelsman PNAS 109 (2012) 16474. E Reuben, P Sapienza and L Zingales. PNAS 111 (2014) 4403.
Science facultys subtle gender biases favour male students. How stereotypes impair women’s careers in science.
Self promotion, asking for a rise: H Riley Bowles, L Babcock, L Lai. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 103 (2007) 84. Social incentives for gender differences in the propensity to initiate negotiations: Sometimes it does hurt to ask.
I’ve discussed statistics on success rates regarding the ERC here.
RCUK published its own data here.


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2 Responses to Spreading the Word, Drop by Drop

  1. Ire says:

    Thank you very much for this post. I understand the frustration because sometimes the gender issue may be seen as an excuse by someone.

    What really bothers me is that if a comment was made not about a woman, but about an ethnic minority, it would be seen as racism. When the same comment is about a woman, it is just ‘banter’.

    This happens in academia, in sport, in the media. Why is that?

  2. Ted Smith says:

    It’s good to read that you haven’t given up and continue to accept opportunities to speak to groups such as the Cambridge Union: you are respected and listened to and we need champions like you to continue to inspire us in this tricky field.

    Progress in social change is always slow, but I get the feeling that in the UK we may have reached the tipping point, and it is being aided by social media. The reason I say this is not scientific, it’s anecdotal, but I’m getting more people asking me what “unconscious bias” is and what is this new program called “sex in science” all about and, most importantly, “what can I do?”

    To this last point you give some practical examples in your blog, and you reference some good articles, and when I look at the ECU and Athena SWAN websites there are more examples …. but I haven’t found a good single practical guide which pulls all this together in one place anywhere yet ………. I think it’s something which might appeal to other senior male (and female) colleagues in science which simply lists all the things you can do and the business rationale for doing them. Have you come across anything like that, that you can point me and others to?

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