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?

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-13 04:41 pm (UTC)
mathcathy: number ball (Default)
From: [personal profile] mathcathy
Personally, unless I was very sure, I wouldn't take on any commitment because someone else told me I should. If I was asked, I'd think about it. It sounds like she approached you in a blackmaily kind of way which wouldn't bode well for the future.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-14 10:37 am (UTC)
feanelwa: (Default)
From: [personal profile] feanelwa
That's quite a sexist way of her to behave, I think - socially manipulating you into doing things. I mean, as girls many of us get shoehorned into doing things to please other people and not daring to do anything that seems rude, so she is using a method which is (a) manipulative and wrong, (b) going to affect women more than men. So by using that approach she is basically choosing women to do her donkey work. And I would bet actual money she chooses women to approach in that way because we're more likely to say yes.

As for the hair and outfit thing, I would like to see her try that on me wearing a holey old T-shirt and baggy old trousers around the lab.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-13 09:14 pm (UTC)
ephemera: celtic knotwork style sitting fox (Default)
From: [personal profile] ephemera
Do you *want* to join the committee? Because if it's simply a case of HoD seeing someone they can shuffle a load of heavy lifting off onto ... (also, if you have reason to believe your role in the committee will be "representing WOMEN" rather than one of a number of voices, this raises all the flags ...)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-14 04:54 am (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
"What does it pay?"

Okay, I have no idea if that would be gauche, but an under-noted remedy for "women wind up doing more of the uncompensated scutwork" is for them to get compensated for it. If this is worth something to your institution... well then.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-14 03:38 pm (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
Happy to help! :)

at my level we have a pretty strict spines and points pay ladder, which was put in place specifically to mitigate the problem of men getting paid more than women for the same job because men are more likely to ask for pay rises. But I can definitely ask explicitly for career recognition points

Wow! That sounds pretty fabulous. (And can I just say I've never heard the expression "spines and points" -- what constitutes a spine, and what a point?) Are there negative unintended consequences? The classic failure mode of explicit recognition systems is that important things that lack social status get left out. Who gets to decide what's worth what? Is it hard to get career recognition points assigned to activities?
Edited Date: 2012-06-14 03:38 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-14 04:56 am (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
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.

This is kinda awesome. And presumably a few men even temporarily moved to part-time to help out with childcare care for children of their own.

ETA: Sexism correction.
Edited Date: 2012-06-14 04:58 am (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
The speaker didn't actually mention men taking paternity leave.

In fairness, neither did I. :) I wasn't thinking of paternity leave per se, though that's certainly one obvious example. I was thinking of single fathers, the fathers of children with severe illness or disability, or just dads of slightly older kids, who want to do their half of the childcare while the coparent is working on her/his own career. Or, you know, who want to be primary caregivers just because. Cause I know that while the numbers aren't overwhelming, if you give men the chance, some of them really, really want to take it.

So what do two-career families do when the tyke is a year old? I don't know how things are where you are about childcare, but here in the US, pre-school childcare is so expensive, that some families have calculated it actually costs more than the family's second income (at least short term), and decide that it's more cost effective for the lower earner, usually, the woman, to quit her job and stay home to look after the kid(s). If both parents can cover some of the childcare without financial penalty, that would be a huge inducement for many men to do so.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-14 08:03 pm (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
I think the little things probably add up more than you think they do. The how-does-your-date-treat-the-waiter principle.

That said, I think strongarming you onto the committee is just another instance of the ways in which you, as a lady, get landed with thankless scut work. There's always a logical reason why it should be you who gets stuck with $time_consuming_job, and you don't usually say "Thank you, but I've got science to do"--but you COULD.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-15 11:49 am (UTC)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
From: [personal profile] hatam_soferet
God of fairness: understood.

"I've got science to do"--I didn't mean that as a magic excuse that would placate your HoD, I meant it as a general-purpose "fuck off I'm busy doing my job". Bypassing, I suppose, in your frame.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-17 12:15 am (UTC)
emperorzombie: (Default)
From: [personal profile] emperorzombie
My dept is also going through the Athena Swan process, for the same reasons although I think we've had a lot more lead time on this. I am not on the committee, but my co-worker is - if you want to know more about how it actually works, I could put you in touch? I'm not sure how applicable our experiences will be, but it seems like it's not a vast amount of effort although it is kinda dragging on. A childfree perspective seems valuable - I think the big problem with the lack of women in senior positions is the break to have children, but it's not the only problem, and I think it's an issue that women of childbearing age could be discriminated against whether they intend to have kids or not.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-19 09:39 am (UTC)
vkbar: (Default)
From: [personal profile] vkbar
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?

Every person in my uni currently working on Athena plans is female. And in the Engineering department, when the one female researcher went away for a month on conference they did nothing with her list of "things you should be doing while I'm gone" checklist, and waited for her to come back to do all the important work of making sure women in the department are treated fairly.

I'd seriously suggest, if you are going to take this on, that you insist it is not your sole responsibility and you want at least one other person (pref. a bloke) who is taking half of this effort on. Because it is thankless and paperworky and you will end up in stupid arguments with older (and younger) academics who don't see the point of any of this and want you to defend it from a starting point of there is no sexism ever.


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.

I could imagine they might have a large effect on women deciding not to leave academia/ switch to a more understanding university where you don't have to do as much second shift work. Which would hopefully lead to more women applying for senior positions, which would hopefully lead to more women getting senior positions.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-20 09:24 am (UTC)
vkbar: (Default)
From: [personal profile] vkbar
I'm still making up my mind how much of a bad idea it would be to break into this and point out that I actually am a feminist and quite possibly a bit "strident".

Well, best case: they will shut up about how not feminist they are and have a reasonable expectation of what you believe. Worst case: they freak out and insist you don't take part on the boring committee. Win either way?

But that he seemed to think that simply describing the problem would magically make it go away, which I was skeptical about.

Ah, I see. No, that doesn't sound like the most convincing argument. It sounds like the sort of thing that fixes it for a couple of weeks, and then the men stop consciously doing the cleaning and it falls back to the women again.

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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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