Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Committee Etiquette

Posted by Athene Donald on September 12, 2010

Now I am back from my holiday, one of my first tasks is to get on top of the committee work for this week’s BBSRC Research Committee C, which I now chair.  Times have changed substantially from the first such research grant committee I ever participated in many years ago.  This was the Food Grants Committee of the AFRC (the Agricultural and Food Research Council), one of BBSRC’s antecedents.  I attended this meeting with some trepidation, not least because it necessitated leaving my 8 month old child for longer than I was happy to do at a time when I was still feeding him (my husband brought him to London to minimise the time of separation), but also because I had no idea what to expect. These were the days before any training was offered by the research councils for young academics. I was therefore very dismayed and taken aback on this occasion to be greeted by an indignant grey-suited gentleman –I had no idea who he was, and members weren’t dignified with name badges or anything similar then – complaining at how late the papers for the meeting had turned up. It took me a while to work out that he had naturally assumed I was part of the office staff, and far too long to come up with any suitable rejoinder.

These days the BBSRC – as no doubt all the research councils do – work very hard at ensuring a good distribution in both gender and geographical location.  I believe currently 4 out of the 8 chairs and deputy chairs of the committees are women, and there will typically be several more serving on each of them.  However that is not to say that all is necessarily plain-sailing for women on committees such as these, even now.  In the last 10 years I have served on two totally separate committees, run by two distinct parent organisations, where the chairman (and most definitely a chairman in each case, not a chair) addressed the committee as ‘Gentlemen…’. It is worth stressing that in the more recent case (a mere couple of years ago) there were actually 3 female committee members present, plus 2 women from the secretariat.  In both these cases individuals were under consideration, so a chairman blind to the make-up of his committee could be considered potentially dangerous in ensuring women candidates were treated equitably; such behaviour therefore cannot and should not be allowed to go on unchecked.

So what is the correct response to such crassness, assuming it wasn’t done deliberately to annoy? It is so boring that one still has to ask this question. It forms part of the “perpetual grinding down by seemingly innocent but slightly derogatory comments” female experience that was described to me by a (female, fairly obviously) correspondent today about her own experiences.  I have always felt that making an open fuss tends simply to be counterproductive; to do nothing just ensures such petty behaviour continues with the added danger of a negative bias in evaluating any female candidates under consideration.  So, for what it is worth, here was how I dealt with the situation in case a similar situation befalls any of the readers of this blog.

After the meeting I emailed the chair, let’s call him X, saying I felt that his use of the word ‘gentlemen’ was inappropriate, the more so as the committee was particularly and explicitly charged with being sensitive to diversity issues in our discussions.  I copied this email to all the women present, to the male members whom I thought would be sympathetic (i.e. to those who had privately expressed shock/outrage to me about X’s behaviour), and to the chair of the committee above, who happened to be a woman herself.  I received a suitably apologetic response from X. Oh he hadn’t meant anything by it, he was just too used to chairing all-male committees. Next meeting……..exactly the same thing happens.  While I was still working out what to do, I was delighted to hear one of the ‘sympathetic males’ I had copied in to my email say ‘X, this really won’t do’. And, pleased to say, X never did it again.

Now lest it be thought this is just me male-bashing, let me hold up my hand and admit that I can also be guilty of making stereotyped assumptions in my committee work. A few years back, on a Board of Electors for a Chair in Medical Physics, I walked into the room to see one more woman than I expected – I knew who all the other electors were – and fell into the trap of assuming she must be an administrator there to see fair play. It transpired she was a senior NHS observer, and I was immensely relieved to find I had said and done nothing to offend her by my assumption – but only because I hadn’t talked to her at all.  I believe we all suffer from unconscious bias and, if the reader really thinks they are exempt, I recommend they try one of the Implicit Association Tests or read some of Virginia Valian’s work on gender equity. It is disturbing to realise what baggage we carry with us.  We all, male and female, have to be constantly on our guard to ensure our roles on committees are appropriately gender blind.


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