Secret diary of an Athena SWAN lead (re-blogged)

Brick Walls: Diary of a SAGES Athena SWAN Lead by Hilary Geoghegan

Wednesday 10th June
I receive a forwarded email from a SAGES colleague with a link to a Guardian article “Nobel scientist, Tim Hunt: female scientists cause trouble for men in labs”. It was accompanied by the message ‘sigh!’ http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jun/10/nobel-scientist-tim-hunt-female-scientists-cause-trouble-for-men-in-labs 

science

Thursday 11th June
Meetings.

Friday 12th June
I spot our technical manager coming down the corridor – I say something like: ‘what are you going to do about all this falling in love in the labs? It must be a health and safety nightmare’. We laugh. We bump into one of our scientists, I say, we’re talking about the idea that people fall in love in labs and women cry. We discuss the move on Twitter to highlight the issue #distractinglysexy. The scientist tells me that she and one of our students have already taken some photos to draw attention to the issue. A few hours later, we put out a blogpost containing photos of our scientists responding to the global trend of raising the profile of women in science: http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/sages-advice-fieldwork-gender-careers/2015/06/12/sages-distractingly-sexy-photos/ 

No falling in love in the lab!

Saturday 13th June
Barbecue with friends. The conversation moves to the latest news in science – the remarks from a world-respected scientist: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry”. It’s a comment that clearly divides opinion. On the one hand, these are comments made by an individual based upon personal experience. On the other hand, taken out of context, they add to the list of remarks that damage the reputation of women scientists. Because this comment suggests that women are the agents of trouble here. Our conversation continued with a discussion about how we work in close proximity with others, not just in labs, but office spaces, and attachments are bound to form on occasion. This story is clearly not just a topic for discussion within science.

Sunday 14th June
Gardening.

Monday 15th June
I attended the ‘Student Wellbeing in Tertiary Education’ policy in practice workshop led by members of the School of Politics, Economics and International Relations. The event showcased the results of The Student Wellbeing Project set up in 2011 to “study how student wellbeing, performance, productivity and satisfaction with university provision are related”. Sarah Morgan from the Cabinet Office argued that whilst the number of women going to university had increased, a pronounced gender difference remained around subject choice. She also noted that there remained clear gender differentials with respect to a widening pay gap and lifetime earnings. The male graduate premium is approx. £121k and the female graduate premium is approx. £80k. Career breaks, discrimination and other unexplained elements were offered as reasons. Sarah went on to argue that we need to value women and the roles they do. There needs to be unconscious bias training. Institutions (and society) need to support women into non-traditional areas, offering imaginative solutions, as well as addressing formal inequalities. A linear career progression isn’t feasible for all in 2015. These are the sorts of issues that the Athena SWAN awards seek to address.

athenaswan

Tuesday 16th June
Flexible working from home.

Wednesday 17th June
Results day for our finalists in Geography and Environmental Science. I turn up to work. I chat with my colleagues in the GES office as I usually do. We are laughing. I get a tap on the shoulder. Could I come to see a student who is upset? I do so immediately. I’ve never met this student before. The student confides in me. I do my best to help and reassure.

This moment puts the events of the past week in sharp relief.

Last Wednesday there was a ‘facepalm’ from colleagues as we read the comments about women scientists. Some of my colleagues responded in a light-hearted way to a difficult and serious topic, joining a community of scientists from around the world (regardless of scientific discipline) to draw attention to the place of women in science. I attended a talk about student wellbeing with comments from a government official that reinforced to me that we aren’t as far ahead on these issues as perhaps many of us assume we are. And then after a day of writing at home with these things running through my mind – I turn up to work and meet an early-career scientist who is carrying the weight of many of these issues. We’ve made a great start in SAGES, but we can and we must do more and better on this issue. This will benefit staff and students.

Thursday 18th June
I receive an email from my Head of School – “Have you seen the brilliant Twitter feed from women scientists across the world responding to Tim Hunt? Some archaeologists and geologists among them. Should we share this with colleagues?” This brings a smile to my face – this social media story has piqued the interest of our gender and archaeology professor. Brilliant. I reply almost immediately, sharing the blogpost from last Friday with our #distractinglysexy scientists. Our Head of School sends out a School-wide email asking colleagues to check out Twitter and check out our blog. Chances are that because it has come from our Head of School, the hits on our blog are going through the roof. They did – 146 views before 2pm!

Environmental Management students falling in love AND working

A short while later, it turns out that the blogpost has divided opinion within the School on how or even whether we should respond publicly to these pressing issues. Two colleagues reply commenting that whilst they have a good sense of humour, this blogpost might be a step too far and regarded as unprofessional. They call for the blogpost to be removed. I thought this might happen. I blog about academic life on my own site and I know the mixed reactions that something like this can lead to. However, the overwhelming response to the blogpost (that has remained on our site) was positive. It was positive for a number of reasons: i) it got people talking. Talking to each other and talking about these issues. Colleagues emailed and turned up in person to support our Head of School’s decision to retain the blogpost; ii) the scientists who participated were connected to something bigger than our SAGES community, standing in solidarity for the important issue of women in science; iii) our blog attracted a new audience. An audience that have on occasion relayed to me – stop blogging and write papers; and iv) it revealed to many the work we are doing and must continue to do within SAGES to facilitate an open discussion on equality, diversity and wellbeing.

Friday 19th June
My focus in this blogpost on my everyday experience this week reminds me of the work by feminist and queer theorist Professor Sara Ahmed, who describes how equality and diversity work is about coming up against brick walls. We need to come up against these walls in order to bring the issues to life and transform our workplace. In Ahmed’s research, some participants described equality and diversity work ‘as banging your head against a brick wall’. As Athena SWAN lead for our School, this certainly rings a bell. Yet, without coming up against these brick walls and creating a space to discuss and breakdown these walls, our School and Departments will never be the equal places we aspire to.

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