What Does Equality Mean?

­­As the additions to my last post indicate, the University of York has backtracked on celebrating International Men’s Day – a celebration that would have taken place today. So now one part of the university is annoyed that anyone ever considered celebrating the day and, by virtue of what was written in the original statement, apparently trivialising the problems women face; another part are equally annoyed that the day is no longer being celebrated claiming that this implies the university doesn’t consider men’s rights are important. This is turning into a hopelessly polarised debate which won’t do anyone any good and certainly won’t make gender equality any nearer. It is all really rather tragic.

I was surprised to see the sentence in the original statement that read

‘In academic staff appointments, the data suggests that female candidates have a higher chance of being appointed than men.’

However, the University of York pointed me to their own data for 2008-11 which shows this statement to be true. However, I do not think those data are enough to convince me that York has solved the prevalent problems of bias against women and have reached a state where now men are being discriminated against, which is of course how the sentence above can be, and has been, read. One has to be very careful about interpretation of aggregated statistics and in my own experience when faced with such data I usually end up wanting to ask more and more questions in order to drill down beneath grand totals to work out what’s really going on.

So, what are the issues that are likely to make the situation complex and hard to unravel? Firstly, aggregating statistics from all grades within a classification (academic, research, support and teaching are the 4 groups that York consider) can mask all kinds of issues. To give a specific example: if, in support staff, the women are clustered in the lower grade positions – such as would have been called clerical in days gone by – there will be many such positions and few men are likely to apply for secretarial posts (why that should be of course could be another debate). So it is likely that many women will be appointed and the success rate may be expected to be quite high. At the upper end of the group, the senior management posts, there are far fewer posts and so, by weight of numbers their contribution to the statistics will be small. I suspect there will also be more people chasing the few posts and I would hazard a guess that there is a preponderance of men applying for those grades – but of course I don’t know that for sure. If these suppositions are correct, the net effect will be women are more successful than men overall. But we can’t actually deduce any of that with certainty from the gross statistics. And attempting to disaggregate them will cause its own problems whenever numbers are small, due to the effect of fluctuations. ‘Under-representation of men’ may be a literally true statement in support posts, as the York website initially declared, but what does it really mean? I suspect it means gender segregation by grade not unfairness in the way it is presented.

There may be similar arguments about each grouping. You can ask further questions too. If women are being appointed to academic positions with a higher success rate than men, does this reflect bias against men? It is easy to start with the null hypothesis that the merits of men and women are equally distributed so that success rates should be identical. But if in fact, as I have heard Ottoline Leyser put it, men are afraid of getting out of academia and women afraid of staying in (her words written up in slightly less stark terms here) then that strong selection process could mean that men and women applying for permanent academic posts may not in fact be statistically equivalent: the women who stick it out may indeed be ‘better’. So, if you decide equal success rates are a sine qua non for appointments panels you will actually be discriminating against women. Again, I don’t know that this applies. A presumption of superiority but in reverse is of course what has been going on for decades and what so many actions are trying to reverse.

As I wrote several years ago:

So, we should be asking ourselves, not only ‘are we nearly there?’, but where is the ‘there’ we are trying to reach. Is the ideal a 50:50 split between the genders at all levels and for all subjects, or do we believe that this is a) impossible or b) undesirable – or even c) irrelevant as a metric.

This whole area is unbelievably complex, even if one only considers appointments. If one looks at progression we need a different set of statistics: are men and women equally likely to be promoted and, if so, are they equally likely to be promoted at comparable career points? If not, why not? I recall looking at Cambridge data about academic promotion some years ago and all I could do was point out how raw numbers cannot tell anything like the complete story. We needed to know for each applicant how often they had applied previously, what were the gaps between successive applications, had individuals had career breaks….and so on. Of course we didn’t have that data. So, any university making statements about men and women’s careers, success rates and – by extrapolation – need for support, needs to be incredibly careful about nuance and detail. Otherwise their statements will be misinterpreted and used against them.

However, to come back to what I imagine York really wanted to do, whether men or women are more disadvantaged should not be the question. Undoubtedly men need support. They need to be encouraged to speak about their feelings before they are overwhelmed. A world in which so many young men choose to commit suicide rather than admit to depression or feelings of inadequacy in case it’s perceived as a sign of weakness, is a world which has much work to do. I believe this should have been at least part of the goal of the University of York’s intended celebrations for International Men’s Day. Making it permissible for men not to fit an alpha male stereotype is a hugely important objective; not just in the context of mental health, but about career aspirations (it’s OK not to want to run the biggest empire in the universe), parenting and work-life balance more generally. That last phrase needs to be as accessible to men as to women and it should not be regarded as equivalent to ‘not being serious about your career’ for either. Equality and diversity is about valuing difference and making sure the workplace is comfortable for all and with equality of opportunity for all. Equality of outcome is a different matter but the easiest metric to measure. As in so much of academia, we need to be careful about being lazy in our use of metrics.

Above all, we should not see men as in opposition to women. We can celebrate both. We can – and must – value both. The University of York now has a major task in healing the wounds careless words caused. But, and as I said before, they have been trailblazers on the Athena Swan front and I hope they will soon be trailblazing again on gender equality after this unfortunate fall from grace. But please, let us not end up polarised into hating, and explicitly expressing that hate, those who are different.


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One Response to What Does Equality Mean?

  1. Heather says:

    Equality for me would imply that it would be impossible to predict a career outcome from gender (or any other method of partitioning people). That there would not be likelihoods one way or another. I agree with your point about metrics and of course your last paragraph.

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