Athene Donald's Blog

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

Committees and Reverse Discrimination

Posted by Athene Donald on December 7, 2010

Recently I was discussing a new working group that was being set up within the University, and realised that all the members that I had heard named were female.  I queried this and was told that that did indeed seem to be the case. This is just as unacceptable as an all male committee. OK, so the working group was going to be looking at a gender-related issue, but the idea that gender equates to female, and is therefore rightfully discussed only by women is wrong on so many counts I simply don’t want to go there.  Needless to say, I pointed out the problem that was apparently being created and, I hope by the time the working group is actually convened, it will have an appropriately diverse membership.  This is not the first time I have encountered this problem – the last time was when I was invited to join the interview panel for the Equality and Diversity Officer within the university a couple of years ago: again only female names were being proposed until I pointed out how inappropriate this was (and it was indeed rectified).

The whole point about gender equality is it is about equality, and can’t just be seen as ‘women’s issues’ which can be dealt with by women alone.  I hope that in my role as University Gender Equality Champion I will be listening to men and women – and where appropriate dealing with issues for those in the LGBT groups too. Nevertheless it is likely to be the case that issues simply relating to women, who after all represent about half of both the student and staff population, may be the most glaringly obvious, and also the ones where there are easiest ‘wins’ to be made quickly.

One of the blogs I read is that of the US FemaleSciencePofessor.  Reading her blog indicates much that differs between the US and the UK, so that some of the posts she writes don’t necessarily resonate here. But I was struck by a comment she made recently

‘Sometimes it seems like I could write a blog post about how much I like pistachio ice cream, and I would get comments like “Why do you hate men so much? Why are you always writing about sexism? Why do you always twist things to be about gender?”.’

I hope that is not what goes through readers’ minds when they read my blog – or indeed that of my colleagues within the University when they see me in action as a Champion.  Misandry – hatred of men –  is not a word that is heard as often as misogyny, but it has the potential to be just as dangerous. And also, I believe that any actions smacking of it are going to be purely counterproductive.  Some years ago Sir David Wallace (now Master of Churchill College, at the time Treasurer of the  Royal Society and VC of Loughborough University) remarked to me how illuminating he had found it when he had attended some meeting – I suspect about women in science but can no longer remember – and realized he was the only man amidst a large group of women.  He said he had suddenly realized the oddness of the sensation to be in that position, and it had made him appreciate what women in science go through much more clearly. So the slightly more mischievous side of me thinks that putting men on committees within my university where they find themselves in a significant minority, may have unexpected upsides!

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7 Responses to “Committees and Reverse Discrimination”

  1. I’m not sure that it’s because your committee is dealing with gender issues. I had similar experience on an ethics committee – in a faculty with a high proportion of males, somehow only women were being asked to be on the committee (though the chair was male). May depend on the match between perceived gender characteristics and what a committee does.

    • I wonder if this relates to how important some of these committees are seen to be, whether they are the sort of committees that might lead to career progression etc. I suspect the responses to ASSET 2010 (http://www.athenasurvey.org.uk/results.htm) hint at something like this, that. For instance men and women are found to be equally likely to have served/serve on Health and Safety and Teaching Committees but women academics are more likely to be serve on Equal Opportunities and Women and Science Committees and men are more likely to be asked to serve on Finance Committees. Another sign of unconscious bias I suspect.

  2. Ursula Martin said

    Many universities have policies about requiring at least one woman on appointments committees. When I moved to a new institutions I found this very useful as a way of getting known outside my own department, and even more valuable, finding out how other departments worked, and especially how they “did business” with the deans, pro-vcs and so on who were also involved.

    Some female colleagues resented the time this took, but it was easy enough if it became burdensome to draw the attention of the central admin to other women who might value the opportunity.

    Bu this is very different from consciously or unsconciously weighting the “service” committees to women and the “money” committees to men. Getting experience of committees that handle budgets is pretty important for career advancement.

    • Yes I think that is a common policy, and it has plusses and minuses. However, what the policy ought to say is that each committee should have a minimum of one (or possibly two) of each gender
      present. It does give good opportunities for visibility etc, but it is important it isn’t merely left to the same bunch of (few) people time and time again.

      I think it is worth considering, however, whether all committees are treated equally in this regard. Although it may be good at an early stage of one’s career to start out on less important ones while gaining experience of how things are done locally, as you say it is important to get a good picture of topics such as finance as you progress.

  3. The other one used to be the childcare committee.

    • Of coure – I’d forgotten that one. I refused to chair it for that reason. I felt that being asked to chair it, simply because I was a senior woman whom it seemed ‘logical’ to ask, was rather pointless. That it would be better to get someone whose children were currently using the childcare services, and certainly find some men to balance things out. An substantial number of university employees, who are male, do use the childcare facilities. It was part of the false equation childcare= women’s responsibility that has to be both resisted and pointed out.

  4. Ursula Martin said

    I havn’t read this book, described as “the first book on gender and academic service”, but it seems this issue is becoming the subject of academic research

    Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces

    Michelle A. Massé – Editor
    Katie J. Hogan – Editor
    SUNY series in Feminist Criticism and Theory

    http://www.sunypress.edu/p-5014-over-ten-million-served.aspx

    From the publishers website:

    All tenured and tenure-track faculty know the trinity of promotion and tenure criteria: research, teaching, and service. While teaching and research are relatively well-defined areas of institutional focus and evaluation, service work is rarely tabulated or analyzed as a key aspect of higher education’s political economy. Instead, service, silent and invisible, coexists with the formal, “official” economy of many institutions, just as women’s unrecognized domestic labor props up the formal, official economies of countries the world over. Over Ten Million Served explores what academic service is and investigates why this labor is often not acknowledged as “labor” by administrators or even by faculty themselves, but is instead relegated to a gendered form of institutional caregiving. By analyzing the actual labor of service, particularly for women and racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, contributors expose the hidden economy of institutional service, challenging the feminization of service labor in the academy for both female and male academic laborers.

    “Over Ten Million Served is an ambitious attempt to reconceive service and its place in the academic workplace. It has a moral seriousness and a topicality that make it an effort that really can’t be ignored. It’s a book whose time has come.” — Bruce Robbins, author of Upward Mobility and the Common Good: Toward a Literary History of the Welfare State

    “This collection performs important intellectual work in analyzing a truth almost universally unacknowledged: that service in the academy upholds an economy crucial to, but not often credited by, the institutions that benefit from it. In discussing the ‘genderization’ of service, Massé, Hogan, and their collaborators shed light on the invisible labor performed in and for the academy.” — Karen R. Lawrence, President, Sarah Lawrence College

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