It’s International Women’s Day tomorrow. Sadly, I’m not going to write about Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie or Emmeline Pankhurst. I’m writing about a very depressing University held event that I went to recently entitled “Inspiring Women”.
It was part of the University’s on-going initiative to encourage more female scientists to remain in academia given the Government’s concern that there is an attrition of women as you move from the bottom to top in academic science. It is not just in science that the gender gap is seen but across academic disciplines. Despite the proportion of female academic staff in the U.K. being close to equitable to males (around 45%), the proportion of female professors remains low ( a dismal 19.8% of all professors). It’s no surprise then that close to a third of men in academia are in the well paid academic positions (earning > 50K), whereas this figure is only at 17% for women (ECU, 2012). You don’t even want to know the figures for ethnic minority women.
There has been much interest in finding out the reasons for this drop out. The Ivory towers it would seem are just as hard to get into as the FTSE 100 Boardrooms. Why? Just like in FTSE 100 companies, where the foot soldiers are high in oestrogen; there are plenty of XX science PhD students. Of my peers, I know 3 talented women who completed science PhDs. One, graduated top of her year in Natural Science at Cambridge with the highly coveted and rarely achieved triple first, another graduated with a first class degree from University College London. The third studied her PhD at Cambridge University. Are these 3 now all Senior lecturers or Readers en route to the Professorial track? No. They have all left academia. They are all married with children. They are all science teachers. This is great news for teaching and I am sure they are fabulous teachers, but given that teaching was the available career option for women 50 years ago, why has nothing changed since then?
The event got off to a bad start as it was obvious from a quick look around that there was not one Y chromosome in the room. Clearly from the institution, and society’s point of view, encouraging women to succeed in their careers is much like breast-feeding. It’s “women’s business” and men need not get involved. Women’s failure to succeed in the workplace is clearly down to them and there is nothing men can do to help this situation. Proceedings took an ironic turn as the Chair that was introduced was an ex-colleague of mine who by chance I had bumped into a month earlier. I had last heard that she had become a senior lecturer, was the “right-hand” lady to a recently knighted Professor and was touted for great things. I was therefore surprised and saddened when she told me that she had resigned from her academic position at the University because of the unsatisfactory work-life balance and unsupportive institution in which she worked. One could only be somewhat sceptical then about her putting on a cheery face to “inspire” other women.
That aside, we were then treated to the career stories of 4 female professors. It was interesting to hear the struggles that my forebears had endured in order to achieve their current Professorial positions. One Professor was required to return to work a few weeks after giving birth and to prepare data for an international conference in the first few months following childbirth. She talked about taking her child with her to international conferences, and when she had difficulties with childcare, her child played under her desk at work. All 4 professors were clearly remarkable and driven women and had made personal sacrifice to achieve their positions.
However, I was grossly disappointed in their summation of strategies for success. Even when I posed the question of what institutions could do to support women in academia, all 4 professors deferred to personal attributes required for success, emphasising the need for “dedication, passion, perseverance and strength of personality”. One went as far as to say that “If you want to make it in science, it has to be your single passion. You cannot for instance be passionate about science and architecture; it has to be science alone.” Another Professor talked about how finding a “niche subject”, “that nobody else was interested in” had helped her get to her position as she quickly became a leading expert.
Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I found these messages deeply depressing rather than “inspiring”. I felt that clearly unbeknownst to the organisers, it was exactly this mantra that has been putting off generations of female scientists.
I could totally understand that these were things women had to do 20 years ago in order to get ahead in a “man’s world”, but surely this does not apply to the here and now? Are women still excluded from major and competitive fields of science such that they are required to seek out an uninteresting niche in order to succeed? Why should women not aspire to succeed in a major area of science? What if your “other passion” is family? Whilst I agree that to succeed in any walk of life passion, perseverance and determination are required, can it be that women are so much less “passionate, determined and persevering” than men…? I feel we need to get beyond talking about personal attributes and thinking about systemic, cultural and institutional solutions. We already know most women undervalue themselves anyway, so the emphasis on personal attributes just means that women drop out saying and believing “I’m not passionate or committed enough” when in actuality they have as much passion and commitment as their male colleagues but systems and culture are against them. How many male Professors were the main caretakers for their children or elderly relatives, might this not impact on commitment and dedication? Shouldn’t we be discussing why these roles can not be fulfilled by men when we talk about barriers to female success?
The event soon went from bad to worse for me as we went on to breakout tables to discuss issues more intimately. I had an unfortunate clash with a Professor who compared my juggling parenting, clinical work and academia with her juggling her career with her desire to exercise (as she had no children). Aside from exercise and sex both being choices, I cannot see any comparison between parenting and exercising. One is a responsibility; the other is a leisure time activity with some health benefits. In addition, insomuch as good parenting leads to well-functioning children and adults, there is a societal benefit as they will be the people paying for our pension and healthcare as we age, whereas exercise has only individual benefit. Whilst the comparison is ridiculous to me, it was shocking and demoralising to realise that this is the view of some intelligent women who have made it to the top. And it seems that I am not alone in my feelings as research shows that women do not just need “role models” and “mentors”; they need the right kind of role models and mentors and are “put off by successful female professors who are seen as aggressive and competitive, and are often childless”(The Guardian, 2012).
Other advice from senior women I have had included: “It’s hard, but we just have to get on with it”, which was comforting until I found out that she had put her own children into boarding school so that she could “get on with it”. Many others have offered support by saying “You’ll never regret time spent with your children”, which is supportive and appreciated, and yet for some reason I had a nagging “doomed” feeling about this kind of advice. For a while, I was unsure why, then I realised, it is these supportive words that perpetuate the myth of maternal responsibility which acts as the source of guilt that is eroding female careers. I can bet no one is encouraging my male colleagues to go part-time to spend “unregrettable” time with their children. Yet, why not?
I left the event after this, but I hear it was “a great success”. The majority twenty-something audience lapped it up with their wide-eyed enthusiasm, much like I would have done a decade ago. Little do they know about the choices they will have to make a few years down the line, oblivious to the fact that the majority of them will soon be lining up to teach secondary school science.
The problem of course is not unique to academia. My husband, a banker, hears women talk about this all the time in banking. What then, can be done to retain more women in science, academia, banking, law, politics? The right role-models? Gender sensitive leadership? Varying management styles? Emphasis on quality of work rather than quantity? An end to “presentee-ism”? Increased availability of part time senior positions? I don’t have the answers, but I do know that it is beyond personal ambition, and will involve changing long established systems and cultures, in the workplace, in society, in families. Institutions need to stop thinking about ways to encourage women to change, and think about ways in which they can change to allow women to succeed. I know that “systems and cultures” may be too great a task to take on, but one might hope that the brilliant women who have already made it to the top, along with their male colleagues might be able to attempt to take this challenge on.
Now that to me; would be truly inspiring.