Last week was steeped in irony. I attended an Athena Swan self-assessment team meeting my university. Athena Swan is a scheme by which universities get accredited for not being rubbish about gender (and other sorts) of equality. Currently my university doesn’t have accreditation; it lost it in mysterious circumstances some years ago. Or at least, the circumstances are mysterious to me as they were not discussed at this meeting. Athena provide a giant checklist of practices which universities should try to follow to get themselves out of their mire of favouring white middle aged blokes (WMABs). They all seem perfectly sensible to me but let’s just say they may seem exotic – luxurious – to university senior management who after all are predominantly WMABs (and not just at my university).
The first serving of irony was the meeting itself. It was chaired by a WMAB, and to an extent dominated by another WMAB who gave the impression of being somewhat dismissive of the scale of the problem. There were women at the meeting. A lot of the preparatory work had been done by a well-informed woman. There was a female former member of Athena Swan panels there. So why the bias towards WMAB even in the meetings about gender equality? I have a suspicion, which might be completely unfair of course: the committee had to be taken seriously by the heads of academics schools so it was decided to have it chaired by an academic head of school to give it credibility. And due to the very problem which Athena Swan exists to solve, the heads of school in science and technology are WMAB. This is problematic in my view. There is a lot to be said for understanding stemming from lived experience, and clearly being a bloke academic prevents you from having experience of being a woman academic. (Mostly. Apart from that psychologist who had a sex change and found that people took her a lot less seriously than her “brother”.) At any rate, I have decided not to continue as a committee member mostly because I think it is too important to be done “off the side of my desk”. The whole point of the accreditation process is to give serious time and resource to gender equality issues and I couldn’t realistically see it being factored into my work load. Further, I am increasingly taking the view that just because I could do something doesn’t mean I should do it. There are, after all, other women in my department who are working mothers and who would contribute to such an activity.
The second portion of irony was served as I desperately tried to do my share of an EPSRC Culture and Communities network proposal on Communities of Motherhood. This was in a week of potty training angst (my angst, toddler’s potty). I was attempting to appear like a normal sane mother to grandparents while costing a proposal during nap times and after bed time. My collaborators on this (and other proposals) all had way too much to do as well. I wanted to help earlier career researchers to get this (tiny amount of) funding in these times of frugal funding. (Don’t get me started on the futility of funding research networks rather than research.) It seemed like a lot of effort for not very much reward. And yet, academia is structured in such a way that people routinely put in mega efforts to achieve yet more seemingly impossible things – meet this funding proposal deadline, write just another cheeky wee paper. Because there are core teaching activities which simply must get done within working hours, research sometimes becomes a strange hobby. I have a colleague who saves his paper writing for Friday evenings. And the problem with this for gender equality is that working mothers don’t have extra hobby time to spend on the research which advances their careers. There just isn’t any slack time in the week for anything extra.
So, what could universities (or funding councils) do to improve gender equality? Here are my thoughts:
- Stop having stupid sand pits where people get walled up in a country house for 5 days at a time, in a terrible Lord of the Flies scenario. This makes it hard for people with family responsibilities to attend. It is costly in terms of childcare, puts strain on other family members to manage the child care in one parent’s absence and is particularly hard for breast feeding women.
- Don’t spring funding calls with short deadlines on people, particularly not during the school holidays.
- Make targets and expectations clearer and more feasible. Academics seem to carry a burden of guilt that they should have more grant funding or write more papers. It would help to know when one has done enough.
- Introduce careers paths where people can succeed through high quality work which can be done without extensive foreign travel. For example, this might mean weighting journal articles more highly than conference articles, and considering reviewing duties rather than key notes as indicators of esteem. Or not expecting EU grant funding (which often requires travel).
- Make an effort to put women on interview panels for promoted posts, even if this means asking women from outwith the university to serve on the panel.