Strong Women, Wise Words

Today I read two interviews with academic leaders, strong women both working in decidedly male-dominated fields. Their experiences are salutary and their advice worth taking to heart, much of it applying regardless of gender.

Firstly, and more famously at least in the UK, was an interview with Minouche Shafik, the Egyptian-born economist and Director of LSE. Economics is a notoriously male-dominated discipline. I was struck by the comments Diane Coyle made about the subject in her recent book Cogs and Monsters.

‘Economics stands out as one of the least diverse disciplines, even as it wields great practical influence, particularly over government policies that affect everyone in society. The subject’s gender and ethnicity record is unacceptable.’

In my own research into the problems of gender bias in publishing, the most striking evidence I ever came across was from Economics, not from any of the sciences (see also here and here).

Minouche is under no illusions about the burdens on women in modern society. She is quoted as saying in the Guardian interview

‘… the way our whole social contract was predicated on women looking after the young and the old for free – now there are more women going to university than men, globally, not just in the UK, and they are employed, and the cost of them not working is really high, so you want them to work. Yet we haven’t found a way to adjust – a way to look after the young and old without women providing free labour.’

As has been made only too clear, the pandemic has made the situation worse, in academia as elsewhere, with the evidence steadily accumulating, on publications and in just about every other part of our professional lives. My concern is that this will continue to play out for years, the disadvantage of these years never being eradicated on those who’ve had to take the domestic load.

The other point that strongly resonated with me in her interview regards the role of luck versus intrinsic merit in an individual’s life. She says

‘The idea that you are successful because you are smart and hardworking is pernicious and wrong, because it means everyone who is unsuccessful is stupid and lazy’.

Luck impacts on all of us: the good fortune of which family you were born into, when and where to start with. Of course, they always say you make your own luck, but if you are born into war-torn Sarajevo, your circumstances are necessarily going to be rather different from being born into a family that can pack you off to Eton. Merit is not the distinguishing mark between two such children. It behoves us never to forget this. Even two kids born in the same London borough may have utterly different life chances due to their different social capital. Many people have noted this – widening participation is, for instance, part of Churchill College’s bread and butter as they examine admissions – but overcoming these disadvantages is never helped by those academics who somehow believe (as I fear some do) that their successes are purely and solely down to their great intrinsic ability and willingness to work hard.

The second interview was in the THE with Rama Govindarajan, who is dean of the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Bangalore. She studies monsoons and is an expert in fluid dynamics. Trained as a chemical engineer, she was the only woman in a class of about 54 in chemical engineering in the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. However, she was not going to let a little thing like that stop her.

‘In the olden days, gender bias was more explicit. My school and teachers tried to make me “ladylike” and to focus more on homemaking skills than on other subjects. I learned to rebel against the former and benefit from the latter. Decades ago, I faced discrimination in terms of unfair job and promotion interviews, in being blocked from facilities and opportunities available to men, and once in a while in comments from colleagues. I learned the art of repartee, to fight directly for my rights, and did win some of these battles. It made me braver and more confident.’

Many women will recognize that ‘blocking’ she describes, often intangibly hard to put one’s finger on, just the sense that things hadn’t turned out for you, as a woman, the same way as for the bloke on the next bench, or who was sitting next to you waiting for an interview. That intangible disadvantage is likely to apply whether or not you can (and are willing) to master ladylike behaviour; I’m sure I’ve not managed to tick all those boxes. Bias is subtle now, as opposed to the explicit gender bias Govindarajan encountered early on, but it doesn’t make it any less real.

Govindarajan now has a major academic leadership role, and continues to speak up on these issues.

‘In these [meetings] and elsewhere, I strongly advocate for speaking up and speaking out against sexual harassment and against unfairness. I speak for equality and symmetry of treatment.’

She believes the family is the place to start, stating that daughters-in-law have a particularly hard time in India. I suspect cultural aspects make that more important there than perhaps in the West, but equality should be equality everywhere.

Finally, when asked what she would like to be remembered for, she says it’s for her training of students and postdocs. I’m sure that is something that will strike a chord with many readers. We can’t always know what impact we have had far down the line, when students may have gone off into very different spheres and contact has been lost, but it is always moving when someone – be they still a scientist or not – reminds you of what you’ve done for them. I had just such an instance this weekend, and I’m very grateful to hear that my advice meant this former student ‘felt less alone’. Life continues to be tough for all of us, but reading these interviews should remind all of us that life is rarely easy, whatever one’s background, luck or skill, but good things can transpire. Furthermore, that each of us can make a positive difference to someone less well placed than ourselves and to wider society around us.



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