Women need the boost Ire­land is giv­ing them, but they de­serve more, says Clare Kelly

Fe­male-only pro­fes­sor­ships will speed progress to gen­der equal­ity, but the push­back shows how far there still is to go, says Clare Kelly

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Clare Kelly is Ussher as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of func­tional neu­roimag­ing at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin and ad­junct as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of child and ado­les­cent psy­chi­a­try at New York Univer­sity.

It has been a great month for Ir­ish women. Mary Mitchell O’Con­nor, the higher ed­u­ca­tion min­is­ter, an­nounced a “rad­i­cal” mea­sure aimed at ad­dress­ing the large gen­der im­bal­ance at the top of the coun­try’s higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. This ini­tia­tive, which fol­lows the lead set by the likes of the Univer­sity of Mel­bourne and the Max Planck In­sti­tute, would see 45 “fe­male-only” pro­fes­sor­ships cre­ated over three years, push­ing the pro­por­tion of women in such po­si­tions closer to the goal of 40 per cent.

There has also been some be­lated buzz about a gen­der strat­egy re­port re­leased in Au­gust by the Ir­ish Re­search Coun­cil, the Re­pub­lic of Ire­land’s pri­mary fun­der of PhD and post­doc­toral fel­low­ships. The re­port stated that the in­tro­duc­tion of gen­der-blind as­sess­ment “re­sulted in a sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment in the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of fe­male re­searchers across dis­ci­plines”. One statis­tic is truly re­mark­able: the per­cent­age of post­doc­toral awards in sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics in­creased from 35 per cent be­fore gen­derblind­ing be­gan in 2014 to 57 per cent in 2017.

Viewed through a dif­fer­ent lens, how­ever, it has been a ter­ri­ble month for Ir­ish women. Crit­ics of “fe­male-only” pro­fes­sor­ships pre­dictably wrung their hands over the pos­si­bil­ity of lower stan­dards if pro­mo­tions are de­nied to de­serv­ing men so that they can be gifted to less-de­serv­ing women. Some an­nounced that the mea­sure in­sulted women by im­ply­ing that they could not se­cure se­nior po­si­tions on their own mer­its.

But the IRC data shine a flood­light on the re­mark­able ex­tent to which bi­ases dis­ad­van­tage women. Com­ing just days af­ter a woman’s lacy un­der­wear was cited in de­fence of the ac­cused in a rape trial, this dis­course has de­liv­ered to Ir­ish women a sharp re­minder of the dou­ble stan­dards and hur­dles that re­main to be over­come in the slog to­ward equal­ity.

It is fre­quently as­serted that, pro­por­tion­ally, as many fe­male aca­demics as male aca­demics are ap­pointed, pro­moted or awarded grants; but women make many fewer ap­pli­ca­tions. Ac­cord­ing to Mark Fer­gu­son, direc­tor gen­eral of Ire­land’s main sci­ence fun­der, Sci­ence Foun­da­tion Ire­land (which has granted seven times as much fund­ing to men as to women), women ask them­selves “is this the job for me now?” while men have a more “go-for-it at­ti­tude”.

This nar­ra­tive, which places the blame on women them­selves, holds con­sid­er­able sway. Af­ter all, there is ev­i­dence that even women who work full-time bear the lion’s share of the phys­i­cal and men­tal house­hold work, so it makes sense that they are more re­luc­tant to step up to roles car­ry­ing ad­di­tional re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and de­mands. But this ar­gu­ment is just an­other man­i­fes­ta­tion of the pro­found, per­ni­cious and ubiq­ui­tous gen­der bi­ases that take hold so early in life that their in­flu­ence on men’s and women’s ca­pac­i­ties and pref­er­ences is com­pletely in­sep­a­ra­ble from any bi­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences. When six-year-old girls en­dorse gen­der stereotypes about the sup­posed greater in­ci­dence of male bril­liance – and en­dure a life­time of be­ing judged more harshly than their male peers – is it any won­der that they are less will­ing to sub­ject them­selves to the ap­pli­ca­tion pro­cesses for pro­mo­tions or pres­ti­gious grants?

The IRC data only add to a grow­ing body of ev­i­dence that, when their gen­der is re­moved from the equa­tion, women are judged much more favourably in a whole range of set­tings, from jour­nal pub­li­ca­tion and se­lec­tion of con­fer­ence pa­pers to or­ches­tra au­di­tions. It sug­gests that gen­der-blind­ing should be taken very se­ri­ously by any body claim­ing com­mit­ment to equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity for women.

At the very least, pub­lic fund­ing agen­cies and hir­ing in­sti­tu­tions should be re­quired to re­lease data on both suc­cess­ful and un­suc­cess­ful ap­pli­cants across all mech­a­nisms and lev­els of ap­point­ment, as well as on the gen­der com­po­si­tion of re­view pan­els. Such data are in­cred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to come by, but trans­parency might ex­pose and cor­rect sys­temic bias, such as the egre­gious his­tory of gen­der bias in pro­mo­tion at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Ire­land, Gal­way.

When peo­ple ob­ject to these mea­sures on the grounds that we should not need them, I agree whole­heart­edly. But the fact is that we do. Hu­man brains like short­cuts, so bi­ases – con­scious and un­con­scious – are not eas­ily al­tered. If male-only pro­fes­sor­ships were pro­posed, would any­one fret about low­ered stan­dards? I sus­pect not.

We have abun­dant ev­i­dence that there are am­ply qual­i­fied women in ju­nior po­si­tions. To take a stark ex­am­ple, one of this year’s No­ble lau­re­ates, Donna Strick­land, was only an as­so­ciate rather than a full pro­fes­sor at Canada’s Univer­sity of Wa­ter­loo (she says that she never saw the point of ap­ply­ing for pro­mo­tion). Be­sides, con­cerns about stan­dards could eas­ily be solved by stip­u­lat­ing that if no one suit­ably qual­i­fied ap­plies, posts should be re-ad­ver­tised.

We are told that fe­male-only pro­fes­sor­ships will in­crease the vis­i­bil­ity of women at this level and help to dis­pel bi­ases by ce­ment­ing the nor­mal­ity of fe­male suc­cess in academia. Un­til that is achieved, how­ever, top-down ini­tia­tives will still be re­quired to com­pen­sate for our lazy brains. We need men­tor­ing pro­grammes for fe­male aca­demics that en­cour­age and sup­port ap­pli­ca­tions for fund­ing and for pro­mo­tion. And an onus should be put on heads of schools to iden­tify and pro­pose suitable fe­male can­di­dates.

Ul­ti­mately, how­ever, change must be­gin at home. Each of us has a re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­flect on our own po­ten­tial for per­pet­u­at­ing bias in how we as­sess and talk about our­selves and oth­ers. How we talk to chil­dren is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant. Un­til six-year-old girls learn that they truly are just as bril­liant as their male peers, achiev­ing equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity is never go­ing to be child’s play.

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