Has the World Changed (Enough)?

“The reported incidents of racism and misogyny are extremely alarming” according to Gareth Cook, fire brigade’s union regional organiser for London about the recent report into the London Fire Brigade. “Women have been “systematically failed” by the criminal justice system”, says Andy Marsh, the chief executive of the College of Policing about the way the system operates, in the same issue of the Guardian. I would like to think universities are not as systemically racist and misogynist as these two bodies, but I would not be confident about it. Just last week, a senior man (actually, he must be some years younger than me in age) felt it was appropriate to put his arm lightly round my waist at the end of a meeting? Why? What does he do to young women in a similarly inappropriate but casual way? Young, maybe even middle-aged women whose careers depend on his approval. I’ve written to him privately to point out the inappropriateness of his ways, not the first time I’ve done this to a senior man. The last time I made no headway, but one must try. Otherwise, as I’ve always said, I am complicit and I must live by my own tenets, however, anxiety-inducing it may be as I put pen to paper.

Young women in academia today certainly don’t seem to have an easy time of it in many instances. But, compared with previous generations, it is interesting to see they are willing to be outspoken about the issues, at least in safe spaces.  They expect to be able to talk about it and this, I guess, is progress from when I set out. Back then, I think we just took it all for granted as the way it was. Rather than actually trying to change it, the philosophy was probably simply a case of trying to traverse the landscape with as little damage as possible; a system which I, for one, assumed had to be this way, immutable. It took me a long time (perhaps when I read the seminal 1999 MIT report on the status of women) before I fully appreciated that the origins of some of the difficulties I faced might have resided somewhere other than within myself. That possibly the world could be constructed in a different way that recognized women fully, not merely expected us to play the part others assigned to us.

Last week I participated in an event hosted by the Lindemann Trust, whose committee I have just joined, to explore and discuss the experiences of women in the physical sciences. The Trust funds postdoctoral fellowships to the USA, but it has been dismayed by the low numbers of women applying for them. They are attempting to find solutions to the problems that obviously underlie this finding. There may be many reasons for the absence of women including: women aren’t tapped on the shoulder about the fellowships by their supervisors in the same proportions as men; women don’t have the confidence to put themselves forward in the absence of such encouragement; or their personal circumstances mean they don’t feel able to leave the UK even if they are aware of the opportunity. I worry particularly about the first of these, because there is nothing women can do if they don’t hear about the fellowships through the obvious channels and this is something that is outside their control.

The evening produced some thought-provoking comments about the barriers that women still perceive. I was also struck by the curiosity of the men who came along to try to understand the issues women face that they know they are probably blind to. The recurring problem of what does excellence look like and what criteria should be used to judge it was raised (and how stereotypes feed into those judgements): perhaps a topic requiring a blogpost of its own.  The feelings of loneliness in maths or engineering departments, when there are so few people looking like you, and tactics to cope with this. There was no sympathy for the line of turning yourself into an honorary man to fit in. This was a tactic one speaker had used and then forcefully rejected. I am conscious that at a certain part of my life I adopted such a mechanism when it came to raucous behaviour down the pub at the end of a conference day. I look back at that time with horror; it’s a persona I feel I’ve been trying to shift ever since in some people’s minds, but at the time it felt a wise strategy to allow me to gain a sense of belonging and inclusion when there were only a handful of other women around.

I am sure the Lindemann Trust will be digesting all the notes taken during the evening to see what, in their own small way, they can do to improve the situation and make sure the brilliant women out there have access to their fellowships. Communication is obviously part of it. I was pleased to see the email that goes out to all the members of my former department included a link to the Fellowship programme this week. In this way there is no need for a supervisor to point out – to a selected few only – that the scheme exists. It does still require confidence in applicants to take the next step, to find referees and to put an application together. Confidence is still a skill that is unevenly distributed amongst researchers, male or female, and may be completely uncorrelated with ability. (The Dunning-Kruger effect demonstrates this sad fact.)

It is nearly 50 years since I started my PhD. Things have changed since then on many fronts, and yet the system appears to remain stubbornly static when it comes to considering what an ideal academic should look like and do. Misogyny and racism lurk in so many of our professional spheres and systems. No university should read the headlines about the Fire Service or the Met and think they are exempt from bad behaviour lurking in their corridors.

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