All we need to do is wait… for 250 years

By Sabrina Patsch, Universität Kassel and Freie Universität Berlin

Times are changing. It is becoming more normal to see female scientists. I had two female fellow students, one of the physics professors of my university is female and a woman just won the Nobel prize for physics. System changes are slow but once the new generation reaches the age of senior researchers gender parity will be there.

Congratulations! We’re done. Time to lean back, give ourselves a pat on the back and enjoy a merry future.

Wouldn’t it be nice? But – I’m sorry – things are not as easy as that. Studies show [1] that, if we just keep going on as before, gender parity in physics will be reached in no less than 258 years. As a comparison: the feminist movement started in the late 19th century which would mean that we made only about a third of the way.

There are many reasons for this. Of course, also demography plays a role. When today’s senior scientists were young, they had much less female fellow students than the students have nowadays. But this demographic inertia is not sufficient to explain the slow adjustment in gender parity we see today. Another reason is visualised by the metaphor of the leaky pipeline: there are many women at the beginning of the academic journey but only a few make it until the end. Of course, also not every man reaches top positions in research. But the percentage of women is decreasing from step to step or, to follow the metaphor, from junction to junction. May it be due to hindrances or because they “chose” to leave academia.

Let’s face it: academia does not glisten with promises of a luxurious or secure life. The way to the top goes through numerous countries and uncountable temporary positions without the guarantee to reach the goal at all. Impossible to plan your life – or even the next three years. That perspective is not very attractive and many choose to pursue another career with more security.

But this does not sound like a women’s problem per se, does it? Aren’t men affected by this as well? Of course they are – but still it is only on conferences dedicated to female scientists that this issues are being addressed openly. Changing the system can help to make academia a more attractive place for a lot of bright people who just do not want to live a hermit life for the sake of an academic career.

In addition to women falling of the career ladder, there are also significantly less girls setting their foot on the bottom rung of the STEM ladder in the first place. The reasons for this are again innumerable. Girls do not have enough female scientific role models, they cannot picture themselves as scientists, and girls are “worse at maths than boys” anyway. As for the last argument, it is important to bear in mind that career decisions are usually not made on the basis of absolute but relative abilities. In other words: People usually decide to study what they are best at and not what they are sufficiently good at. So someone who is good at math but even better at something else will most likely decide to study… something else. And indeed: a recent study [2] showed that the higher reading ability of girls, as compared to their math skills and also the reading abilities of boys, can largely explain the gender gap in math-related fields while the sheer difference in maths performance is not able to do so.

Shouldn’t we encourage everybody to study what they are best at? The subject in which they are most likely to develop their full potential? In principle yes, but the occurrence of this difference in abilities seems quite peculiar by itself. One obvious explanation seems to be the very different education of girls and boys. Girls are, for instance, usually more encouraged to read and dream while boys are expected to be more practical and to make things. Even the most trying parents have a hard time to raise their kids without gender expectations. Our society is full of them. Never have there been more gendered toys, more pink and blue in our world than today. Parents who tried to show their kids that they can become everything they want will be disappointed one day when their little girl comes home from the nursery school telling them that she can’t be a knight anymore and that she wants to be a princess now –  the other girls said so.

It’s hard to be a knight amongst princesses. It’s hard to be the only girl in the advanced math course. It’s hard to be the only women on a conference.

And who can blame them for wanting to be just like the other girls? They should not need to justify themselves. They should not need the strength to “be different”. And they should not need to wait 258 years for it.

 

[1] L. Holman, D. Stuart-Fox, C. E. Hauser (2018) The gender gap in science: How long until women are equally represented? PLoS Biol 16(4): e2004956. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2004956

[2] T. Breda, C. Napp (2019) Girls’ comparative advantage in reading can largely explain the gender gap in math-related fields. PNAS 116 (31) 15435-15440. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1905779116

Collaborating with Men and Gender-inclusive Workplaces

By Wing Ying Chow, Postdoc at a research institute in Berlin

When asked about the issues facing women in science or more broadly in the working environment, most people probably would think of the fact that women may have children and it would be a challenge to balance work and family life from then onwards. Leaving aside the implicit assumption that women would be “in charge” of family life and therefore find more conflict with the time they can spend at work, is this actually the biggest factor?

From a survey of 954 women who graduated from the University of Cambridge, it was found that the most commonly mentioned career challenge was not actually balancing family and work (22%), but challenges within the workplace itself (38%). This suggested that women’s career issues arise not only because women have children, but perhaps more because workplaces and the associated culture were developed at a time when only men were working, and changes still need to be made to make workplaces more inclusive.

What changes would these be? It is against this background that Murray Edwards College carried out a study titled “Collaborating with Men”, presented on 23 September to an audience of alumni, staff and students. Dame Barbara Stocking, the President of Murray Edwards College, pointed out that previous emphasis has been on “fixing the women”, but the changes required in workplace culture can only be solved by men and women working together. In addition, gender equality is not only a women’s issue, it matters and can have benefit for men as well as women.

To find out what changes can benefit gender equality and to come up with actionable recommendations, 40 men working in a range of sectors including business, civil service and academia (and different career stages) participated in a workshop, several focus groups and some were interviewed to understand what men think about the impact of workplace culture on women and what possible remedies there are.

The study emphasised that men are generally motivated to improve workplace culture. Early career men tend to be more individually motivated and are more open to changing their behaviour, but many tend to think that “the job is done” already regarding women’s issue in the workplace. Mid-career men are busier in their work and personal lives and can see gender issues as yet another thing they have to deal with, but also have more personal experience of the impact of having families on women’s lives. From this, it is clear that men of various career stages can be motivated to champion gender diversity, though continuing to raise awareness will be key for engaging with men in the early stage of their careers when they are more likely to become active allies for gender equality.

Benevolent sexism was raised as an issue that can affect many women in the workplace, where women get channelled into jobs that they are believed to be good at, whether it is more teaching in an academic setting or more caring/managing roles in a business setting. This leads to women staying in mid-level roles rather than being promoted to leadership roles.

One issue that was often surprising to men was that many women feel that their voices are not being heard, for example in meetings, even when the women are in a comparatively senior position. Many women in the audience agreed, saying the greater problem is not just the fact that the expression of their ideas gets interrupted, but also that the same idea gets picked up later on by men who receive credit. On this issue, the men in the study first assumed that women were not speaking up. After some further discussion, it was suggested that differences in tone, phrasing and even pitch of the voice of women that may lead to men’s voices and opinions being heard more than women’s. Based on this feedback, one of the recommendations of this study was to organise reverse mentoring where junior women would mentor senior men or managers, to help those in charge understand how things are like from the women’s perspective.

The strategy of amplification was also raised during the discussion. This is famously practised by the female staffers in Obama’s administration, where ideas offered by women would be repeated and given credit for it by another person, thus making it possible for women’s voices and ideas to be properly heard and credited. Obviously, this would require women to have other allies in the meeting, which brings in another aspect of cultural issues in the workplace — one where men find it easier to form unspoken alliances with other men.

One aspect that the study focussed on was where women are not as integrated into the peer group in the workplace as men, particularly in informal networking. It was highlighted that men and women have different styles and views of networking, where men often maintain larger networks consciously, in case someone they met turns out to be helpful later; women are more likely to join formal women’s networks and also tend to be more transactional, only getting in contact when they have a specific request or offer. Moreover, due to worries of sexual harassment, it can often seem “safer” to interact with people of the same gender. As a result, the informal networks tend to be gender separated. This is, unfortunately, not in women’s favour as men can feel that they cannot sponsor women as strongly as they would sponsor a “good guy” that they have more informal interactions with. In the recommendations of the study, some schemes for building closer relationships were proposed, which not only give more opportunities for networking across genders but can also improve the communication within an organisation in general.

Murray Edwards College is extending an invitation to institutes and companies that are motivated to improve their workplace culture to try out some of the recommendations in their report. To read the full report and recommendations, please see the links below. Jill Armstrong (ja605@cam.ac.uk), the researcher involved in this study, will be delighted to hear from anyone who is interested.

https://www.murrayedwards.cam.ac.uk/about/Collaborating-with-Men

2017 Report: https://www.murrayedwards.cam.ac.uk/news/collaborating-with-men-report-talks-about-changing-workplace-culture
2017 Action plan: https://www.murrayedwards.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/files/Report%202%20-%20Collaborating%20with%20Men%20July%202017.pdf
2014 Survey results: https://www.murrayedwards.cam.ac.uk/sites/default/files/files/Women%20Today%20Women%20Tomorrow%20Survey%20Report.pdf