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.