Accrual of Disadvantage

Another year, another International Women’s Day. Sometimes I get frustrated that so much action happens on this one day of the year, and isn’t distributed uniformly throughout, so that the discussions, the highlighting, the signposting – all those necessary actions – percolate the full twelve months. Of course there is much going on, but often below the radar of many academics, so that only those who are already thinking about these matters participate. There is no point in only preaching to the converted. Perhaps having this one day to celebrate the amazing women in our midst does indeed make sense, even if they should be celebrated as often as the men.

Change does happen and will happen. The more companies recognize that board diversity leads to better financial outcomes, the more they will be willing to throw away their old prejudices requiring all board members to look like the Chair and open up their executive suites. Diversity also helps the generation of disruptive science and technology but, as a 2020 PNAS article by Hofstra et al put it

‘demographically underrepresented students innovate at higher rates than majority students, but their novel contributions are discounted and less likely to earn them academic positions.’

The authors called this the ‘diversity paradox’. Being innovative doesn’t mean academic progress if you don’t fit in.

Wherever you look in academic science there are still inequalities baked in. Be it in how CVs are read according to your name (see here and here), or how long papers take in Review and what their success rates are (as evidenced by a study from the Royal Society of Chemistry); from how lecturers are assessed by their classes to how often academics’ work is cited (see here for a specific example in neuroscience, but there have been other studies too). The Matilda effect – a term coined by Margaret Rossiter back in 1993 – is alive and well, whereby women’s work may be inaccurately attributed to a male.  Awarded grants are typically smaller for women; they rarely lead the largest grants, both as shown in data from UKRI. HEI’s have significant gender and ethnicity pay gaps, as can be found by looking at each university’s published results (my own university’s is published here). At every stage disadvantage can build up. The evidence base is accumulating. Albeit a particular study may look at only a single (sub-) discipline, yet it is hard to believe the trends do not apply across the board. Organisations talk a lot about this, yet the biases persist.

Of course, some of the actions and actors are not down to the HE Institutions themselves, but individuals and, as is so often said, they may be (still) entirely unconscious of the bias they exhibit. I know I am never consciously aware of the names (let alone genders) of the authors of papers I read or cite – unless I know the authors. You can see the biases creep in there. I am no more free of them than anyone else, but I do at least try to think about these things. I am, however, sure that I cite a paper because it is relevant, not because it’s written by someone with particular characteristics. That this is not so, with men apparently systematically citing men more than women I find bizarre. But, as the authors of the study about neuroscience I cite above hypothesise, this may all be connected to the way our social networks operate. Men may ignore women at conferences, and so never realise they should talk to them about their science, which would perhaps interest them greatly if they did. On the other hand, they may of course be more interested in acting as predators at these same conferences, for which there is only too much evidence, but that’s another story for another day.

In science research, as in just about every other sphere, the playing field has a significant tilt to it which we are only slowly beginning to rebalance. Work to do – but not just on IWD, but on every day of the year!


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