Should we just ‘get over it’? No, seek to change it… (some resources)

The world right now… each day seems to feel more and more challenging for people doing social justice oriented work, whether it’s against racism, sexism, sexism&racism, and all the other -isms and intersections of oppression and injustice.

This morning I read this story from US Professor Wanda Pratt, which starts with the suggestion that women should ‘just get over it’… An idea which is premised on the idea of accepting some forms of inequality as ok. But they aren’t. Her story highlighted her experiences of sexism and harassment throughout her study and professional work experiences, in engineering and computer science. Then I read this NY Times story on misogyny within economics. Such stories are powerful, painful, and frustrating. But they highlight why sexism is not trivial or minor, and that the end of the road to (gender equality) isn’t close, not even close enough, and why it seems like there still some fairly large mountains to climb.

And that’s (just) sexism and misogyny…

The (predictable, not ‘shocking’ [and you can read some brief Virginia-oriented history here]) violence in Charlottesville focused global attention on the repugnant hatred and violence of racism, and the emboldening of an organised and determined white-supremacist/ultra-nationalist/neo-nazi movement. Many resources have been doing the rounds in light of the hatred, violence and pain of Charlottesville, highlighting ways we can (more) effectively intervene in these times – what follows are some links to a few of these. Some are written by black people, spelling out what they want/need from ‘allies’ (a popular term, but also subject to valid critique), or how to fight white supremacy. Some are written by white people, highlighting the need for those of us who are white, to take this on ourselves – some specific to Charlottesville. Writer/activist Imani Gandy highlighted the hashtag #itsonus as a useful way to signal this obligation (others took the time to explain to those who might not realise, why #notallwhitepeople is not just inappropriate, but offensive and demonstrates a profound ‘not getting it’). This analysis of how the ‘alt-right’ operates is a useful read, as is this report on a not-yet-published study of psychological characteristics (and if you’re interested, look at how non-white ancestry can be recuperated by some white supremacists). Some highlight the way violence is not an answer – and humour may offer an alternative. Other’s note that while the extrematism of white surpremacists has galvanised responses (like this blog!), the systemic structural works of racism ‘rage on’ and need to be a key focus of white action against racism. The US National Council of Teachers of English produced a blog highlighting that no classroom is apolotical (even if we think it is) with resources for teaching in these times.

And, in case you’re in any doubt, racism is not only wrong, it’s a human rights violation. If you’re not actively working against racism, make sure you give nothing to racism. As Tim Soutphommasane recently concluded in an article on responding to upswings in racism, it is” not enough to be non-racist; we must also be anti-racist”.

Finally, I’ll end with this cartoon meme that’s been doing the rounds, drawing on Karl Popper, highlighting why being intolerant to intolerance isn’t actually the paradox some might accuse. This ties in to the problematic of idealised ‘free speech’ and the (problematic) premise that speech is distinct from action.

Gender Summit 9 (Brussels, 8-9 Nov 2016)

I’ve spent the last two days in Brussels attending (along with my UoA Physics colleague Fred) my first Gender Summit, a global conference series focused on women in STEM*, and intersections between research, policy, funding, etc… The interconnections with the political realm were evidenced by the first half day being at the European Parliament, hosted by the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee (FEMM). The Summit (Day 2) was a great environment to be in for those of us reeling in shock and fear after the US election results – let’s just say Day 2 was a more somber affair than Day 1! The GS website has heaps of reports and resources, so check it out. And if you fancy, you can explore the twitter feed of the conference by searching #GS9EU.
*there was some talk of sex/gender beyond a binary, but the focus by and large was on women, and evidence/interventions aimed at women and girls.

The theme of this summit, GS9, was on gender-based research, innovation and development for sustainable economies and societal well-being. The two days were filled with inspiring speakers sharing experiences, challenges, resources and much much more. I tweeted a lot during the conference, but here I’ll try and summarise some key reflections, resources and ideas. There are far far too many links and organisations to share them all, but a few I’ll list, in no particular order, before I get onto some reflections and meta-themes:

A key theme was that we cannot simply tweak around the edges, and we cannot take small steps. We must think big and be bold in both our vision and our actions. Under this overall message, three strong patterns struck me, which I’ll focus on: 1) who is the problem and what do we ‘fix’?; 2) metaphors and language matter; and 3) there need to be consequences if we’re to get real change.

1) Where do we locate the problem?

A key message across many talks was that ‘women’ are not and should not be seen as the problem, and that by focusing on changing women, we implicitly send the message that women need to learn to be more like men to succeed. Instead, we need to focus on the structures, the context, to make women’s participation more appealing and success more likely. This is of course much harder – I wonder if the appeal of newly oh so popular efforts like implicit bias training is that they fit so easily within existing structures and contexts. That they don’t really challenge structures, and they fit comfortably within what we already do. They also do not challenge deeply entrenched ideas of meritocracy and ‘level playing fields’, which (as problematic as these ideas are, in reality vs in rhetoric) initiatives like ‘positive discrimination’ (which some advocated for strongly – more below) and tagged ‘women only’ posts and opportunities challenge. One delegate critiqued implicit bias tests as “very soft” and that we treat them as this magical training that will result in gender equality… but this obscures the fact that some people will be opposed to it (indeed, the US election result is evidence of the ongoing potency of prejudice)!

The suggestion was that we need to reflect more on our own constructs, that we need also to be aware to the ongoing reiteration of gender difference and gender inequality even in our own practice – which I heartily agree with; and this applies specifically around norms, and a lack of intersectional thinking. Which brings me to the next point…

2) Language and metaphors matter

One of the questions which got the loudest applause was a challenge to the ‘leaky pipeline’ – an image brought up again and again – and to say the implications of this image is that women are drips, among other things… And while some people argue (and I can understand why) that we shouldn’t really care about ‘what the problem is called’ – leaky pipeline or freaky pipeline as another presenter suggested) – as a critical social scientist, I do fundamentally believe that language produces reality, and that the metaphors and language we use has consequences. A metaphor suggested to replace it (and the glass ceiling) was the glass obstacle course. I like it. It works for me, the sense that what we face is both knowable (that it is an obstacle course) but also impossible fully to know (invisible) and hard to navigate – many are set up to fail obstacle courses.

This resonates with my wider concerns around how an emphasis on ‘well-being’ obscures the fact that our academic working conditions are often impossible, impossibly stressful, impossibly demanding. If we focus on individualised well-being initiatives (instead of changing the system with its impossible demands), responsibility is located within the individual who fails to achieve well-being, who fails to ‘manage’ their own stress. They are at fault. They are the failure. This idea echoed through many presentations which argued that we need to change the model of the successful scientist, someone who works 80-hour weeks to achieve the impossible (for most) goal. The message was we should see this model is the problem, not women who ‘fail’ to achieve on this model. The same critique was also levelled at various metrics and measures of “excellence” – the whole implicit construct of ‘the excellent scientist’ needs to be re-thought, it was argued. This remains a challenge!

Of course, we have policy in place to ensure all these things, and we have rhetoric that suggests that things like “time to care” are taken into account. But the gap between official policy, and the implicit messages that get sent (and, often, what counts) are often wide and deep – a Pacific Trench if you will, rather than a small creek… For instance, as an academic I know that ‘work life balance’ is important, that my performance will be assessed in a ‘relative’ way, and that it’s not just research outputs and funding that count. But other messages constantly contradict this ‘truth’ – and it’s very very hard to remove yourself from believing in the ongoing truth of the (old) model that values the traditional model of excellence, noted above. How practice (and representation) work together to change this isn’t fully clear, but this links to the third theme, on the need for consequences…

Another final point about language relates to questions around what we argue for – equity or equality or inclusivity or diversity, etc… each of these terms were used by various people; I tweeted across a spectrum, mostly reflecting the use-of-the-moment. But they aren’t necessarily the same, and they do evoke different things (with, again, different accompanying metaphors) and thus, perhaps, both intended and unintended consequences. The UoA has adopted language, policy and practice guided by equity, and my language reflected this, but equality language (focused on endpoints) was far more common than I had anticipated.

3) There need to be consequences for real change to happen (and quickly)

This could be subtitled good intentions are not enough. It links to both previous themes. South Africa’s Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor emphasised (in the EU Parliament session) that experience in SA has taught them that “radical intervention and political action are imperative if we are to achieve change in gender inclusivity in science”. She highlighted the positive effect that positive discrimination towards women had had in getting women awarded the prestigious SA Research Chairs. Another example given by Dr Mario Pinto was of Canadian Research Chairs – that institutions would need to have gender equity plans in place. But he emphasised that there need to be consequences if plans are not adhered to.

Consequences. Amongst this general theme, there was some discussion of initiatives which either combined a ‘carrot and stick’ approach, or adopted more of a clear ‘stick’ approach. I’ll report on one example: the practice that Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) – a major research funder – has adopted. With 7 universities in Ireland, their case could be considered somewhat akin to ours in NZ. Ireland has taken on Athena Swan, and SFI has adopted a policy whereby institutes must have bronze accreditation by 2019 to receive funding, and silver accreditation by 2023. Now this approach and Athena Swan have not been without criticism, but it provides an example whereby real change has been assumed to rely on consequences – in this case, a will ‘hit them in the pocket’ if they don’t meet some (often claimed as fairly low) baseline.

A fourth thing which struck me, which wasn’t a theme across the conference so much as a reaction from me, was a sense of overwhelming frustration, that went along with all the inspiration and optimism for positive change. We know so much about what the problems are, and even on possible ways to resolve them – why are we wasting time and energy and resources doing more and more research into ‘the issue’ and not instead focusing on intervention for change. Does a push for ‘information and evidence’ actually really effectively function as a way to stymie change? I’m starting to think so. Why not be bold, and jump in with radical intervention, something akin to Harvard’s recently ‘big’ response to the sexism and misogyny of its male soccer team’s actions, by cancelling the rest of their season. But in this, we need to remember that context matters – things don’t work everywhere, and you need to adapt things to your own context. But that’s not to say you need to start over…

That’s enough from me. The conference was great, and it is clear that an increasing number of funding agencies and other bodies around the world have decided that increasing the participation of women in STEM is an absolute priority. I really look forward to hearing more, especially from more Asia-Pacific countries, at the next one, in Japan next year.

That ‘equity vs equality’ graphic

So, you might have seen this recent post, which talks about the problem with the equity vs equality graphic that’s been doing the rounds recently. The graphic itself highlights the difference between and approach where we give everyone the same (equality) vs giving people differently depending on their different particulars (equity). I’ve seen different versions but basically it illustrates it with (in the case they use here) people trying to look over a fence… if everyone is given a box of the same height, only some people are able to look over the fence, because they are tall enough to start with.

The post critiques the graphic, for subtly reinforcing the idea that it’s individual characteristics that result in unequal opportunities, rather than structural or systemic factors – factors like racism, poverty etc. – that intersect to produce and perpetuate very unequal starting positions. The graphic is a shorthand to capture the idea of an approach rooted in justice, with an outcomes rather than inputs focus (equality of outcomes rather than equality of inputs). I’ve shared it. I like it. It’s powerful in that it succinctly encapsulates and transmits a crucial distinction for those of us working around equity, inclusion and social justice.

However, as a shorthand, it does, necessarily, reduce complexity of argument. As someone who works with the nuance of language, and understands representational power at both gross and subtle levels, I do appreciate the concerns raised. We don’t want to employ or deploy metaphors that inadvertently communicate ideas that facilitate diminished responses to injustice, or that allow people to resist equity on ‘individual difference’ type grounds.

Will I still use it? Yes, probably, but I might nuance my discussion a bit more with this consideration… And I do like the suggestions presented here, of a third box – in which it’s the fence itself which is undone.

Promoting gender equity in science/STEMM: A reflection on Prof Jenny Martin’s visit

It was a treat last week to have biologist Professor Jenny Martin visiting us from Australia, where she is the director of the Eskitis Institute at Griffith University. She blogs and tweets about things science-related, including women in science. Jenny has been passionate and committed to promoting the participation of girls and women in STEMM in Australia, including a key role in getting Australia’s SAGE initiative set up. It was this focus of her work that she spent time discussion in two presentation. The first, on Gender Equity – recognising and removing bias from the equation, was to the equity community at the UoA. The second, enticingly (or provocatively, depending on your view) titled Science is Male, was a standing-room-only seminar in the School of Biological Sciences. (Jenny has kindly agreed to provide  links to her slides; I’ll revise this blog when they’re up).

Both presentations balanced humour with the seriousness, and emphasised the practical – what can I do, what can you do, what can different groups of people do – to increase not only early participation, but retention of women in science, and in contexts where they are valued, and have the opportunity to flourish. My experience of watching presentations like this (in my equity role I have seen more than one) is to hope to glean new ideas for moving forward in what we do to promote Women in Science at the University of Auckland. Jenny’s talks both validated much of what we’ve been working on, with our Platform for Gender Equity and other things, and offered new insiprations and suggestions.

Jenny emphasised the need for leadership from above to really make a difference – alongside bottom-up/’on the ground’ type actions. Yes! Please.

She also emphasised the need to collect the data – so, for instance, what is the case in relation to a gender pay gap? Jenny highlighted a few cases of North American universities where a gender pay gap had been explored, identified, and addressed through some form of compensation. Some places have opted for a one-off payment; UBC took a slightly different tack, adjusting women’s salaries across the board by 2%, when analysis identified a gap that could not be explained by other factors . As New Zealand is far from immune from gender pay inequities, I would like the UoA to undertake a similar analysis, and to take action should a gendered pay gap be identified. So measurement and collecting data is important (we are researchers, after all). Not least because what we measure determines at least in part what we see and what we can know…

Another topic discussed more widely – and where we’ve seen some shifts globally, but where a lot of work is still needed – has been gender inclusivity at conferences – on organising committies, and on speaker panels, plenaries, keynotes, and other invited speakers. Senior men have been encouraged to take a pledge (this isn’t the only one!) not to accept invitations where, in the most basic version, women are not present as participants. Jenny has offered 10 simple rules for achieving gender balance in conference speakers. This is something we’re working on…

There was much much more – which can be found in her slides (when I get them up), including data around the bias against women found in student surveys (which was news again this week, with a new Dutch study providing new robust evidence around this).

Jenny acknowledged that gender is not binary – our focus on ‘women in science’ can sometimes obscure that. She also acknowledge the intersections of many different axes of privilege/marginalisation, which are vital to acknowledge and hold as real, at the same time as we talk about broad brush categories. The idea of our indenties and experiences offering differential privilege and marginalisation are captured in trainings like the power shuffle – they can be powerful and revealing tools.

Amidst this, I appreciated Jenny’s use of humour. These topics are of course very serious, but laughter is also vital amidst it all.



Parenting in higher education

I’ve just read this fascinating review of Parenting to a Degree: How Family Matters for College Women’s Success, by Laura T. Hamilton. The book studied a selected group of MidWestern US College women, and explored different parenting styles, and mapped these on to different educational outcomes and achievements. I won’t sum this up here (read the review!) except to say parental input matters. Related to recent discussions around class at university (a great invisible here), and to the potential challenges first-in-family students face, I was struck by the way this seems to nicely empirically demonstrate the often invisible supports (and lack thereof) and the ways these really do impact on students, and participation and success.

Excellence vs inclusivity and participation?

I’m just back from a month in the UK, where there seems to be much doom-and-gloom about the post-Brexit impact on higher education and universities (I’m not suggesting this is unfounded; all analysis I’ve read suggest this worry is well-founded). This morning, I read this piece in the Guardian about the push for ‘excellence’ and (related) exclusivity in (some) universities in the UK, and how this potentially works against developing more inclusive and diverse student bodies. Then I read this piece, again in the Guardian, about the scrapping of maintenance grants for the poorest of students, which indicates another way in which participation from certain marginalised groups will likely be reduced. They are just two points of a complex discussion of the role of the university, and the place (and obligations?) of universities in contemporary (western) societies – including the tensions between ‘private benefit’ and ‘public good‘ type arguments and perceptions.

Related to this question of who makes it in to our classrooms (and what we do to get them there, make them feel welcome, keep them there, and support them to flourish), one of my favourite presentations at the British Psych Society’s Psychology of Women Section conference was from Leeds Beckett academic Glen Jankowski, talking about diversity and inclusivity projects around race/ethnicity, in both the psychology classroom, and the university more generally. He discussed various projects and practices, linking to great resources like Leeds University’s anti-racism toolkit.

No words…

Today much of the world is reeling in shock at the extreme hate crime attack in a queer club in Orlando, that left 50 dead and over 50 injured. This is the brutal, violent edge of the spectrum of marginalisation and discrimination we try and undermine through equity work. I have no words, just deep deep sadness, and deep deep anger. And thoughts of solidarity and strength for my LGBTQ colleagues, students, friends, and wider communities around the world. Kia kaha!

Diversity in tenure decisions

I’ve just read a piece in Inside Higher Ed which highlights the new decision by California’s Pomona College to now include being “attentive to diversity in the student body” among the criteria for teaching quality, as assessed for tenure decisions. The initiative seems to be both staff- and student- led. Although such ‘rules from above’ are often critiqued (as the article outlines), I see time and time again, the way ‘inclusivity’ and concerns about diversity become the ‘nice to haves,’ always secondary to the really important criteria for excellence that are used to judge practice in the university sector. I

LGBTIQ staff (& students) at university

Apparently, academia has high (“disproportionately high“) numbers of “gay and lesbian” staff. That’s fantastic – it suggests that the university provides a workplace environment that is a welcoming for LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bi, trans, intersex, queer/questioning) academics? But does it, and if so, what does that look like? The Times Higher just published a piece asking How Welcoming is Academia to LGBT Staff? in the UK. The answers suggest that overall, higher education does provide a fairly inclusive workplace environment, where being out is possible. But this doesn’t make being queer* & out academic always easy, and stories from academics reveal the potential complexities. In 2009, my colleague Victoria Clarke and I edited a dual Special Feature in the journal Feminism & Psychology and Special Issue of the journal Lesbian and Gay Psychology Review. We asked questions about whether the personal is pedagogical – around genders and sexualities in the classroom – and explored how LBGTIQ academics negotiated heteronormativity in and through their practices. Like the piece in the THES, we focused on academics’ voices. We asked them to reflect on their experiences, choices, and practices, in the context also of pedagogical theory around visibility and critical engagement. Both our project and the THES piece show that at the same time as universities typically offer fairly ‘safe’ environments, this cannot always be taken for granted: experiences vary, and the intersection of things like the localised university context, the person’s various identities and perspectives, and the broder sociopolitical cultural context, all come into play.

Despite some fairly rapid gains towards equal rights and opportunities for LG (less so trans) people in many Anglo/western countries, ongoing challenges to full- and free- participation are recognised in equity work around LGBTIQ populations. At the UoA, LGBTI staff and students are equity groups; our Rainbow Science Network is part of a university-wide LGBTI network that combines student and staff perspectives. Staff and students often intersect most regularly in the classroom, and inclusivity becomes evidenced not only through what we teach (and what we don’t teach), but how, as teachers, normative and non-normative identities come into play.

Victoria and I also researched experiences of queer students on campus (both UK and New Zealand; sadly not yet published, in full, but discussed here). That highlighted some of the very persistent and sometimes pervasive ways heteronormativity shaped students’ experiences. One of my students explored NZ data, and found students reported that the university offered both a place of inclusivity (“I can be myself”) and of marginalisation (that this came with “with a side of homophobia-flavoured rice”). Sheffield Hallam University recently published a much fuller report into the experiences of undergraduate students, focusing on the entirety of the university UG time (including selection choices). It likewise highlights that issues of marginalisation and discrimination remain challenges for LGBT students, including within the classroom – and found connections between (negative) experiences and student retention. Back closer to home, a 2012 Unitec MHS thesis examined LGBTIQ students’ views around campus climate, and compared them with straight student responses. What that nicely illustrated was the way straight students could perceive an environment as somewhere where ‘it’s fine to be gay’ and all identities are equally possible and accepted, but that view or experience was not shared by LGBTQI students.

*I use queer here to refer to sexual or gender identities outside the heteronorms and gender-binary, recognising that lots of people don’t choose that label.

Economic analysis of gender-based salary/wage discrimination

Yesterday, I went to a seminar at AUT on Testing theories of gender discrimination using linked employer-employee data, presented by Economist Isabelle Sin, based at Victoria University. The analysis explored the question of what proportion of salary difference can be attributed do a gendered bias. But it tackled the question in a way I hadn’t seen before. By exploring higher-level income data – based on PAYE information from IRD – and industry/employee data, Sin and co-authors aimed to calculate ‘productivity’ based on gender, and salary based on gender, and compare the two. Not being a quantitative analyst, some of the detailed analytic tables were hard to follow , but the gist of the analysis is that across a very large sample of private-sector, for-profit companies, women’s productivity can be calculated as 86% compared to a 100% for men, but salary is 74% compared to 100% for men (taking part-time/full-time status and certain other factors into account). This average discrepancy – effectively a 12% gender-pay-gap – varied also by age categories, and a finer grained analysis revealed the gap differs considerably by industry category.
What wasn’t defined clearly was what productivity is – this may be a well-defined concept that holds up well in economic analysis, but I struggle with the concept, in lots of ways. I don’t like way it evokes a very linear and literal conceptual model of workforce contribution. Furthermore, as noted in the questions, the lack of a gendered-analysis of industries themselves meant that those which came up as most/least disriminatory didn’t necessarily map ‘common-sense’: for instance, libraries, which tend to have a female-dominated workforce, was included in the industry-band which appeared most-discriminatory (though this may in part reflect issues of gender-distribution across that workforce). Farming in many forms was the least discriminatory, which may at least partly reflect the pay-data used… It was based on PAYE data, meaning contractors were excluded.
Overall, the analysis was interesting – it provided a very similar number to other estimates of the gender-based pay gap. But it also highlighted the value for detailed or micro-focused, and specifically gendered, analyses. Furthermore, as other research indicates that race/ethnicity also impacts salary, including here in NZ, I believe that needs to always be kept present in analysis of gender-based pay gaps.