Athena Swan presents a narrative of women as victims in the academy and in the lab in particular – the targets of prejudice who need special campaigns in order to get on. This is not just an unhelpful message to send to our daughters, it flies in the face of reality.
Women go to university in greater numbers than men and have done since 1992. This is the year I went to university. People older than me entered the labour market at a time when things really weren’t so good for women. When childcare was far harder to come by and cultural expectations about what women were capable of achieving really did cap women’s ambitions. But in the intervening quarter of a century this has completely changed and women younger than me have more opportunities than ever before.
This is across all subject areas. Arguing there are gender gaps in science depends upon a very strange definition that discounts whole areas of the discipline. In 2014, 78 per cent of veterinary science undergraduates were female as were 82 per cent of students on courses in subjects allied to medicine. 57 per cent of those studying either medicine or dentistry were women. This is not a recent change. Each year since the mid-1970s roughly 60 per cent of medical students have been female. Today, girls aged 16, outperform boys in all the major science subjects. Aged 18, boys perform marginally better (under one per cent) at maths and chemistry, but girls do better in further maths, biology, computer science and physics and as a result more women than men are studying every science subject at university with the exception of physics, engineering and some branches of physical chemistry.
Initiatives like Athena Swan draw our attention to the ‘leaky pipeline’ a metaphor that suggests that although many women enter science as students, they then drop out and there is a gender imbalance at the top of the profession. Again, we’ve got to remember 1992. To establish a career, to get to the stage where you are running a lab, takes many years. Of course, comparing the number of women doing science PhDs today with the number of women professors shows a huge gap. But compare the number of women science professors today with the number of women PhD students twenty years ago and that gap is far smaller. As new female entrants progress through their careers then they will eventually swell the senior ranks too. The myth of the leaky pipeline, used by campaigners for all good intentions, tells these young women students that science is prejudiced against them.
It would be naïve of me to suggest that there are no issues facing women – most especially those who combine careers with motherhood. When women have children, the long hours in labs that scientific careers demand are both more difficult and less attractive. But the problem here is only in part to be found in science. Our cultural narrative sees women as the primary carer – meaning that despite working 200 miles away from home yesterday I still got three messages from my nearly 18yr old son’s school to find out why he hadn’t made it back after lunch. My suggestion that they ask his father – or, better still, ask the young man himself – did not go down well. But I wasn’t the victim of some patriarchal conspiracy designed to keep women in the home – it is more often other women making those phone calls – and mothers themselves who choose to take on this role.
What we need nowadays is both cultural and practical support to allow women the freedom to run their lives in the way that is best for both them and their families. This means providing good quality, affordable and flexible childcare.
One leading advocate for nursery provision for scientist-parents was Sir Tim Hunt whose by now famous ill-advised joke about the ‘trouble’ with women in labs led to his resignation from his honorary professorship at University College London.
It was science’s presumed inability to recruit and retain women, and the supposedly precarious employment and promotion prospects of female scientists, that provoked the outrage around Hunt’s remark. In a public statement, the provost of UCL justified his acceptance of Hunt’s resignation and declared, ‘Equality and diversity is not just an aspiration at UCL, but informs our everyday thinking and our actions. It was for this very reason that Sir Tim’s remarks struck such a discordant note. Our ambition is to create a working environment in which women feel supported and valued at work.’
Two points here. First, did Professor Arthur really think women scientists such sensitive and delicate flowers they would be likely to wilt at a self-deprecating joke made on the other side of the world? Second, is the promotion of equality and diversity now placed above the pursuit of knowledge in the aims of the university?
It seems as if prompting the resignation of eminent scientists is legitimate if it makes women feel more valued.
Athena SWAN is considered so ideologically central to the promotion of gender equality and pragmatically vital for maintaining institutional revenue streams that it is rarely criticised. In practice this means that time and money that should be spent on medical research, technological advance and the pursuit of pure knowledge is instead channelled into form-filling and box-ticking. Appointments are made and resources invested with gender balance and team diversity, rather than intellectual gains, in mind.
But what this means in practice is that women in labs will always be women in labs, forced to act as representatives of their gender.
Once feminists fought against the patronising label ‘good – for a woman’ – they wanted to be equal to men – they wanted to be ‘good – for a scientist’. Today women can never just be scientists.
We need to stop scaring girls with horror stories about science’s alleged ‘woman problem’ and we need to stop patronising women scientists by assuming they need a helping hand. We also need to stop confusing science with politics.