Jun. 13th, 2012

liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
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!

what do women want? )

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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