Fixing the Numbers (Well, Maybe)

Gender, committee memberships and research grants.

April 28, 2013

Reprinted with permission of the author. Originally posted at Athene Donald’s blog at Occams Typewriter  on March, 19th, 2013.

This week I read that the Labour party was attempting to redress the lack of women candidates by using all-women shortlists, as women aren’t faring well in open competition to get selected as Parliamentary candidates. In Europe, meanwhile, we see the European Commission (EC) pushing for 40% of women on its advisory committees for Horizon 2020 (presumably once that problematical budget is agreed), so far only as a target not a formal quota. Is this sort of ‘social engineering’ the only way we are finally going to make significant progress in a reasonable time period? And if so, will there be unintended consequences? I am afraid I believe that the answer to the second question is yes, even if it isn’t obvious what the answer is to the first question; this isn’t necessarily very good news for men or women.

I wrote before about my mixed views about quotas and the like; that post was actually provoked by a conversation with an EC official. Now I find myself writing this in Brussels, as a new member of the European Resarch Council’s (ERC) Scientific Council. Gender matters greatly to the ERC, which has been gathering statistics on relative success rates of men and women to its various schemes since its inception in 2007. But, as my fellow Council member Isabelle Vernos said in her Comment piece in Nature recently (£), ‘quotas might even make matters worse by overworking already-stretched female scientists.’  

I agree wholeheartedly and one has to look carefully at what using more women on their committees might actually be expected to achieve, beyond sounding impressive.

The recent and much-cited PNAS paper by Moss-Racusin et al demonstrates that populating a committee with more women is not necessarily going to lead to more favourable outcomes for women applicants. The evidence from the ERC’s own statistics support that: there appears to be no correlation between the number of women on a committee (or whether the chair is male or female) and the success rate by women. That finding is healthy and as it should be. Women academics are thin on the ground, representing less than 20% of the professoriat globally across Europe, although that figure obviously varies significantly both between nations and disciplines. These women are likely to be already overworked (or at least worked disproportionately) locally on committees, distracted from pursuing their research in ways that might facilitate winning ERC funding themselves. So asking them to devote yet more time to sit on grant-giving committees, isn’t necessarily the best way to achieve better gender balance in success rates, however important, rewarding and stimulating such a task may be and however much there may be concomitant indirect benefits in experience gained and networking opportunities. Superficially seeking out women to sit on such committees looks attractive; in practice it may be a completely misguided and wasted effort.

That last paragraph encapsulates a depressing truth: statistically women are somewhat less successful in obtaining ERC grants than men, as Isabelle Vernos’ article pointed out. The ERC is not unusual in that respect: I wonder if there is any grant competition across Europe where that isn’t true. If it can’t be solved by a simple manipulation of committee make-up, what can be done (I refuse to accept the naïve argument that women are less good at science!)? I suspect the answer may lie in tackling deep-seated cultural issues. Just as men have traditionally been able to rely on (male) support systems to help them navigate their way through job opportunities, career progression and promotions, so I suspect this sort of networking may also have provided them with access to mentors and peers who can comment on early drafts of grant applications and share insight and tips from their own experiences. Do women automatically get this sort of support without asking? And if not how many of them feel comfortable asking for such advice? Possibly if this mentoring were provided as a norm throughout their careers, women would imbibe the tricks of the trade that help to transform a decent proposal into a stellar one.

One strategy my own department has recently introduced is to offer mock interviews for applicants for ERC Starter Grants who reach that stage. Automatically this is being offered to men and women, with senior staff making up the mock panel. It’s too early to say if this will make a difference but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. However, that is already fairly late in the process, when many individuals will already have failed to make the cut – I am suggesting that perhaps women are being disadvantaged by a lack of mentoring as they actually write the proposal in the first place. There are figures to show that some states in the EU are also under-represented, and the concern about them is that lack of expertise in these countries means applicants aren’t getting the insight and advice they need from their seniors to enable them to enter the process as effectively as, say, those from my own country which has been extremely successful in obtaining funding from the ERC (even if many of the successful applicants are not UK nationals). I can’t help feeling that the same may apply to women.

If this is true, then we should not be blindly moving to some quota of women on committees in a vain attempt to redress the imbalance. We should, in our own institutions be mentoring women as they set out and at every stage along the way. If women are reluctant to ask for help as they put an application together, we should make sure the help comes their way whether they actively seek it or not (or conversely creating an atmosphere in which asking for help comes more naturally to them).  Maybe some of the women who do make the grade of winning an ERC grant will willingly join a future panel for the experience and sense of returning something to the system. But if we insist that the few women who do succeed must disproportionately give up their time to fulfil an EC ambition of 40% female membership we will be doing them (and the ERC) a disservice in preventing them from benefitting from the money invested in them.  In my earlier blog when I wrote about quotas I had mixed feelings. In this particular instance I feel quite clear in my own mind that the plans are likely to backfire on the very people that they are meant to help.

Athene Donald is a professor of physics in the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge working on soft matter and biological physics. She has an active interest in issues around women in science within the university (WiSETI ) and outside (Athena Forum) and equality and diversity more generally; and a growing interest in education and science policy.  Her first degree and her Ph.D. are both in Physics from Cambridge University and she is  currently the University of Cambridge’s Gender Equality Champion, and chairs the Royal Society’s Education Committee as well as sits on their Council.  Athene can be found on Twitter at @AtheneDonald



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