Jul 15, 2011

Terence’s Stuff: Gender Equity

In February 2010 the director of my (medical research) institute created a committee to formulate policies and actions promoting gender equity (GE), with the understanding that he would do whatever was in his power to implement its recommendations.
What is the problem? Statistics can help us see it. Trends in the percentage of females at different academic levels can be an eye-opener. In my institute, nearly 60% of the undergraduate and PhD students are women, about half of our post-doctoral scientists are women, 25% of our lab heads are women—but just one of our 15 division heads, and two of our 21 full professors, are women. These proportions have barely changed in the last decade, and the disparities were even greater further back. Of course statistics alone don’t prove that there is a problem. The introductory comments by Professor Lotte Bailyn, then chair of the MIT faculty, to a landmark 1999 report put it nicely: Our first instinct is to deny that a problem exists (if it existed, it would surely have been solved by now), or to blame it on the pipeline or the circumstances and choices of individual women. She continued, None of these, however, explains the inequities surfaced by the Committee.
Why does it matter? Professor Rachel Webster of the University of Melbourne’s physics department said this, at a recent GE workshop: It is abundantly clear that women and men are equally talented in their capacity for scientific research. However they may not operate in the same way within our social context. Our challenge is to create the environment that realises all that talent, rather than just a fraction of it.
It came as no surprise to me to learn that, to the women on our GE committee, the single most important GE issue is child-care. At last our institute is doing something about that, although it will clearly be some time before it is adequately addressed. I was surprised to learn how much is going on elsewhere to promote GE, and embarrassed to realize that I have been dragging my feet for a quarter of a century.
Many US universities now have an office or centre of Work/Life, to help implement family-friendly policies on parenting, child- and elder-care. Good policies on tenure clock extension, modified duties after the arrival of new children, flexible working patterns, and emergency assistance, are widespread. For example, UC Berkeley gives one semester off teaching for all new parents, and two semesters off for the birth parent. This gives a semester for transitioning and research catch-up, and a semester for the physical maternity leave. The University of Michigan gives both to both parents. There are now many policies on these matters in place around the US, institutional contributions to GE.
In my own institute, we now try to confine meeting times to 9:15–4:30; we have a generous child-care subsidy for selected individuals; there’s a private room where mothers can breast-feed, or express and store milk; a family room for emergency child-care is planned; and we are trying to make it easier to work from home. The capacity exists to hire temporary technical assistance for continuity of effort during maternity leave. We have a “Women in Science” lecture series. We send women on leadership-training courses and we fund a family-friendly viewing room at a series of annual national conferences,
Changes of the kind I have just mentioned are the easiest to bring about. The ideas might come from those below, but their implementation is from the top. And note that they tend to be aimed at women in the first 10–15 years of their careers, and specifically address the issue of children. Different policies and practices are needed to affect the middle and later years of a woman’s career, and to include women who do not have children.
How can we bring about changes to institutional and broader professional cultures, to ensure that all women realize their potential? There are no quick fixes here. Committees addressing hiring, prizes, conference programs, and other decisions must consciously look for women as fellow committee members, candidates or speakers, since qualified females can be overlooked on all fronts. Effective and uniform policies for mentoring all junior colleagues are needed. Women may require more support as they approach key career transition points, by encouragement to apply for positions or fellowships, and by having “champions” in the system to promote their interests, e.g. through a network of senior colleagues. There must be equitable distribution of rewards, resources and responsibilities—salaries, fellowships, awards, space, teaching and committee assignments—and effective mechanisms to notice and address inequities when they arise.
I believe gender equity is achievable, but getting there will require imaginative and sustained effort on the part of all of us.


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