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Equality: Everyone’s job, no one’s responsibility

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a day-long seminar at the University of Huddersfield (where I work), on gender equality in Higher Education. The conference was organised by the University’s Athena SWAN committee: Athena SWAN is a charter of the Equality Challenge Unit, initially aimed at advancing the careers of women in STEM research and higher education, and now broadened to include women working in art and humanities subjects, as well as support staff.

There is a Storify of tweets from the day available, and this write-up on the University of Huddersfield’s news pages gives a decent summary of the topics discussed. Below are my own personal impressions of the day.

I was interested to attend this event because, as subject librarian for Computing and Engineering, I am keenly aware of the gender disparity in these subjects in particular. I am interested in how we as a University can better support women in these subjects, from undergraduate students right through to Professor level. I also have a personal interest in gender (in)equality in professional fields, and how structural and cultural factors contribute to this.

Note: although the title of the event is about equality, the day focused specifically on gender equality. There were a few mentions of the lack of racial/ethnic diversity in academia but this wasn’t really explored beyond sharing a few depressing statistics. There also wasn’t anything mentioned beyond the gender binary: no mention of the experiences of trans students or academics, for example. I appreciate that there was limited time available at an event like this, but I hope future events might consider broadening their definition of “equality” a little to consider intersections of oppression.

It was an informative and well-planned day. Each of the speakers contributed to building a picture of the problems within the field, and some potential solutions. In the opening talk, Professor Yvonne Galligan from Queen’s University, Belfast outlined the “leaky pipeline” problem facing women in STEM. In the academic sector, women drop out at every level: representation in related GCSE subjects is about equal, but at every step up from there (A level, undergraduate, postgraduate, and continuing through to academic level, senior lecturers and professors), the proportion of women drops. She noted that encouraging gender parity is not only the right thing to do, it also makes for better science: diversity within research teams produces better results.

This thread was picked up by Professor Paul Walton, University of York, who talked about unconscious bias in hiring/promoting practices and ways of tackling this. One of the more concrete suggestions from the day came from this talk: Paul’s recommendation was to have “unconscious bias observers” as part of the interviewing, hiring and promotions process. This needs to be a person from within the senior management team, but who is not otherwise involved in the hiring/promotion decision process. Their job is purely to observe all stages of the process, look for signs of unconscious bias and address these when they arise. I hadn’t come across this idea before, but I thought it was really interesting. It’s apparently something that’s been used with some success at York already.

The keynote was from Baroness Brown of Cambridge, who used her own, distinguished career to illustrate how women could be supported to succeed in STEM. She noted that women tend not to apply for jobs unless they meet all the criteria, whereas men will apply if they only meet one or two, so it is important to be proactive in reaching out to women who could be ideal for the post you are recruiting for, as they may not apply without encouragement.

The final talk was from Professor Caroline Gatrell, University of Liverpool, who talked about her own experience of building up a career as a researcher. She faced barriers early on, such as being told she couldn’t change from a teaching to a research position. She also struggled to gain recognition for her research area, which was mothers and workplace inequality – at one point even being told this wasn’t significant enough to research as it focused on a “minority”! She persevered, building networks via Skype and email when she wasn’t able to travel to conferences and networks, and building up a portfolio of publications – which she wouldn’t allow her institution to claim for their REF until they offered her the research post she’d long been denied. (I felt like cheering when she shared this story, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in this!)

The speakers all had practical suggestions to make, alongside highlighting the scale of the problem and the amount of work (and it is work) that is needed to tackle it. I was also heartened that no one wasted time on “debating” whether or not women have the necessarily talent/skills to succeed in STEM: that was taken as a given. There was a question at the end along the lines of “should we be trying to force women into careers they don’t want”, which was addressed decisively, without quite dismissing the question but making it pretty clear the speakers considered this to be a straw man, and a distraction from the work that needs to be done.

However. Without criticising the organisers or speakers (who all did an excellent job), I was left with a couple of reservations about the day. First and foremost: while I believe events like these are worthwhile for putting the topic of equality at the forefront of people’s minds, I do think there’s an element of preaching to the choir. The audience at this event looked to be more than 90% female, and for all the talk of equality needing to be led from the top of the organisation, I couldn’t see many of our senior leadership in attendance.

I strongly believe that the work of gender equality shouldn’t all fall on women to do, so it was disappointing that there weren’t more men (and more senior men) in attendance. The day was introduced by our Vice Chancellor, but he left immediately after reading out his introduction. I appreciate the VC is a busy man so probably couldn’t spare a day to attend the whole event, but it would have been nice to see him in at least one of the talks (maybe the keynote) or even dropping by during the lunch break.

My other main reservation is that, while there was good sense talked on the cultural and organisational barriers to women’s progression in academia (unconscious bias, lack of visible role models and support/mentoring for women, microaggressions, gendered division of labour that sees female lecturers doing pastoral care while male lecturers get the higher prestige jobs. etc.), I didn’t really hear much about the structural barriers in place.

While I agree that the cultural and organisational side is important, and it was good to see some acknowledgement of the discriminatory measures built into the system (e.g. Professor Walton mentioned the inherent bias against women and people of colour in student ratings, which makes these problematic to use in evidence for promotion), I don’t think we’ll actually get very far without recognising that the whole structure of an academic career is built on a model that assumes you either have no family or caring responsibilities, or that someone else (i.e. your wife!) is taking care of these for you.

This was touched on a few times. For example, Professor Walton mentioned parking as a gendered issue: where there was a shortage of parking spaces, people who came in earlier nabbed all the spaces while those who arrived later, usually women who’d been doing the school run, were left with nowhere to park. York addressed this issue by introducing parking spaces that could only be used after 9.30am, to cater for people who were arriving later due to caring responsibilities. I thought this was a good example of tackling a problem that in many places may not have even been recognised as an equalities issue, but I would have liked to see more of this really.

I also think that institutional sexism in the STEM industry needs to be tackled. There is evidence that part of the “leaky pipeline” problem is down to women leaving STEM for careers where they won’t face a hostile working environment, or be constantly questioned on or face belittling assumptions regarding their qualifications and aptitude for the role. This study, focusing on the engineering profession, is a good example of this effect.

I really enjoyed the final talk from Professor Gatrell, talking about the barriers she’d faced in her own research career and how she’d overcome them, but there did seem an element of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” here. Professor Gatrell was very inspirational, and I’m not criticising her for her approach or her advice, which was useful, but I think it’s unfair to expect women and people of colour to put so much effort into just getting their careers going, when their white male colleagues don’t have to put so much effort into just being heard in the first place.

At the start of the day we were shown a familiar image, demonstrating the difference between equality and equity:

Two side-by-side images showing three people of different heights attempting to watch a sports event from behind a fence. The left image, captioned

However, a more accurate graphic has been doing the rounds recently, and conveniently I think it illustrates my point here! (I’ve struggled to find an original source for this image, but various versions along with a useful discussion are in this blog post) The updated image shows not just equitable access, but the effect of removing a systematic barrier:

An updated version of the previous image, with an additional third panel added showing the solid fence (that was blocking the view) replaced with a mesh fence that allows everyone to see through it regardless of height.

I do not believe the “leaky pipeline” issue will ever really be solved until we address the systematic, structural inequalities within academia and within STEM. This is of course much harder work: it’s far easier to give people boxes to stand on than to tear down fences!


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