liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
[personal profile] liv
So there's an organization called Athena Swan which promotes institutional policies that are good for women in STEM careers. I signed up for a meeting on the topic, hoping to pick up some tips, because Athena-related events are usually a bit earnest but often useful for both advice and networking. However it turned out that I'd kind of misunderstood the remit of the meeting, and it wasn't there to help female researchers, it was a crisis meeting for senior people.

Why a crisis? Well, one of the major government funding bodies has announced that the Athena Swan silver level is going to be a prerequisite for funding from now on. They haven't given institutions any lead-in time to actually clean up their acts, it's a fiat which says, support women's careers or no money for you. And the way Athena Swan works, it's assessed on a department by department basis. Currently Life Sciences has achieved their silver level charter, Medicine has a concrete plan in place to apply for it, and my research institute, through whom I will actually be applying for most of my research funding, is kind of wrong-footed. And I suspect the RI is going to have a bit of a hard time because while not actively misogynist as a working environment (good enough for the bronze level charter, probably), they're a bit crap at things like flexible working policies, promoting proportional numbers of women and men and the sorts of things that you need for silver.

I have rather mixed feelings about this decision by the funders. I mean, on the one hand actually imposing tangible financial penalties on sexist institutions means more than lip service to supporting women's careers. But as a female researcher, I think in many ways I'm more disadvantaged by working for an institution that is barred from a major source of research funding, than I would be anyway for working for a male-dominated institution!

The event had an invited speaker, who comes from the only academic department in the country to have achieved the exulted Athena gold award. His talk was, well, he started out by saying he's not a feminist, he just believes in fairness, which was an interesting choice of framing. He gave the usual stuff you hear from Athena and like organizations about how there's a leaky pipeline, lots and lots of junior women but they're not getting promoted in proportion to their numbers. (It's easy to assume that if there's plenty of women on the lowest rungs of the academic ladder but few at the highest levels, the situation will even itself out if you just wait a few years, but no, this situation has been static for a a couple of decades, it needs positive action to fix.) Oh, and even the women who do become professors are paid about a third less than male professors, in all subjects and almost all higher education institutions.

So what has this amazing gold-medal department done to fix things? From the sound of things it's a mixture of quite radical HR policies, with general awareness raising and trying to tackle the little things to create a culture that's more supportive of women. Bear in mind that positive discrimination is completely illegal in this country, and I agree with the speaker that this law is right; simply promoting less qualified women to even up the numbers would be unfair and would lead to tokenism without fixing the problems that led to the imbalance in the first place. His examples included implementing a guarantee that anyone who changes to part time is able to come back full time at any point, and giving women who go on maternity leave basically uncapped resources to keep their academic output going while they're away, anything up to funding a full post-doc to run the lab in their absence. Apparently this was intended to combat the serious career disadvantage women face if they take maternity leave when funding and promotion depend so much on a continuous publication record, but what actually happened was that it led to significant numbers of men, even men in senior positions, temporarily moving to working part-time so they could look after elderly relatives or write that book they'd always been meaning to.

The little things he referred to, well, that seemed a lot less convincing. Making promotion criteria more transparent to combat the "women don't ask" problem. Instructing male colleagues to pay attention to things like who talks the most in meetings, or who gets listened to when they do talk, or even who washes up the dirty coffee cups when they accumulate in the break room. I'm sure none of those things hurt, but I also doubt they had big effects on the proportions of women getting promoted to senior positions. He said that he refused to have gender-based quotas for committees or decision-making groups, but instead made a policy that you could only be on a committee if you had been shown to be "fair" about gender issues. I have no idea how he measured or enforced that, and I was a little suspicious of the soundness of his argument that women are just as likely to be sexist as men, so there's no point having "more women in positions of influence" as a direct goal. He also intimated that his little things approach would only work if you started from a context where the men basically believed women were equals but were a bit clueless about gender issues, and seemed pretty confident that this is true of pretty much all male academics.

And then my head of department (a female professor, by the way) button-holed me and declared that since I'd showed up I was obviously interested in this stuff, and she wants me on the committee for the medical school to put together an application for our Athena Swan silver award. I think this is probably a good idea, but I'm not sure. Pros: I do in fact believe in making institutional changes so that women can fulfil their potential, and I'd like myself a lot better if I actually contributed to that goal rather than just vaguely thinking that feminism is a good thing. It'll be good CV fodder and genuinely good experience. Cons: the brunt of unintentional discrimination affects mothers, not women in general, and as a childfree woman I'm just not the best spokesperson for "women's" perspective. It's likely to be one of those life-eating things and I possibly shouldn't take on more of those. And of course part of the problem is that women take on more thankless scutwork, which takes time away from research and churning out publications, and gets emotional recognition but rarely actually leads to career advancement. Any opinions, anyone?
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