purging

Gosh, it’s been a while. The reason why I’m back is that I found a couple of bad feelings festering on my mind, again, and I think they need purging.

The first is a strong negative reaction I experienced when I considered applying to the UK Royal Society’s Dorothy Hodgkin’s Fellowship Scheme – a scheme specifically aimed at early-career scientists with a need for flexible support. Now, I agree with the principle that scientists with caring responsibilities, or those who have otherwise had their academic career affected by external factors, must have access to some way of leveling the playing field. This is simply because scientific excellence – or potential for excellence – is judged on the basis of productivity, or impact. We may argue endlessly about how to judge excellence, but I think it’s fair to say that, to first order, the development or manifestation of excellence is favoured by the passage of time. Thereby, those scientists who simply have had less time to devote to their scientific interests than what can be naively inferred from their C.V. should, absolutely, have the cause for such taken into consideration when applying for jobs, fellowships, prizes, etc. I also believe that any worker with an established need for flexible support and working patterns should never be denied it.

It seems to me however that, in separating their fellowship schemes the way it currently does (the other is the University Research Fellowship), the RS fails to level the field for those who need it, and seems to award flexible fellowships only to those who have a demonstrable need for such support at the time of application. The application process for the two schemes are in every way identical, with only a single exception – a statement, in the case of the DHF, that demonstrates the candidate’s need for flexible support at the time of application. Based on this, their application continues down the assessment route or not. The scheme notes state that this statement is only read by the Grant’s Office to establish eligibility – the assessment panel will assess each individual based on scientific merit only*.  Thereby, a candidate such as myself – expecting a child and wishing that working part-time for a couple of years was a viable option – will be judged alongside someone who, for example, has cared for a relative throughout their adult life. The playing field, I would argue, is far from being leveled. Furthermore, does this distinction mean that, if I were awarded a URF fellowship and, during the term of my fellowship I developed a need for flexible support, that I would be denied it? I.e., is flexible support exclusive to the DHF? And, if not, what is the point other than reducing the pool of candidates to a randomised and mostly female minority?

It would be a lot simpler (and more fair) for the RS, in a single fellowship scheme, to offer flexible support to all fellows as they develop this need , and to level the playing field amongst candidates by some other method (the European Research Council, for example, simply normalises one’s “career age” by taking into account caring commitments or illnesses). The current separation screams out the wrong message. From my personal perspective, it read: watch out – if you have children and start sharing your science time with these children you’ll put yourself at such a disadvantage that you’ll need to apply to these special schemes if you want to get anywhere. I was so overwhelmed by my negative reaction to this scheme  that I simply didn’t apply – generating some heated discussions with senior academics who saw me as being foolish. Apparently, I should be playing the game – it’s hard getting ahead for everyone, we should take what we get. No. Just no. I want to be judged against the complete pool of scientists out there, and I want to have access to flexible support when I need it, because I need it – not because I pass some eligibility criteria on a certain day of the year.

[BTW, I am very much open to the idea that I’m simply missing the point – I mean, there are very clever people who sit on RS committees who at some point decided this was the way forward. But so far nobody has successfully convinced me that this is the right way to support early-career scientists with special needs. As always, I would love to see my mind changed!]

My negative reaction to this – undoubtedly well-meaning! – scheme can be traced back to my aversion of repeatedly being told that I’m at a disadvantage because I’m a woman. And now doubly so that I’m expecting a child (I may actually snap at the next person who points out to me all the things I won’t be able to do once my baby is born). This brings me to the second event that ticked me off recently. I was sitting through a (again, well-meaning) talk that summarised  the Athena Swan initiative, in particular the needs that motivate it. I don’t know enough about the initiative and hold no strong opinion either way. What stroke me was the endless series of statistics that was thrown at me and at an audience of aspiring women in science that demonstrated our disadvantage in the academic world. It’s a fact, look. You, and you, and you – things WILL be harder for you because you have a vagina. And that, I’m afraid, is a fact (was the claim).

I mean – honestly – does anyone really think this is a good thing to drill on my mind? This brings me to the blogpost that prompted my own. Athene Donald today, although writing within a slightly different context, points out the following:

Telling girls explicitly that maths is meant to be hard appears to be exactly the worst kind of advice to give, as it will simply reinforce stereotype threat; this is that anxiety provoked by being asked to do something where there is a negative stereotype associated with your identity. Tell girls they can’t do maths and they will underperform in maths tests; tell white boys that Afro-Caribbean’s can run faster than them, and their time over 100m will be less than if they hadn’t been told.

And here it is – a term that expresses what I quite couldn’t when I first wrote about it two years ago: stereotype threat. And, two years on, let me make this once again absolutely clear: the only time I feel at a disadvantage is when I’m told that I am. There are many things that I believe do affect one’s career’s prospects: lack of self-confidence, lack of initiative or ‘networking skills’, different sets of priorities, etc. And we may argue, demonstrate even, that some of these personal attributes correlate with gender – but (let’s all say it as one) correlation is not causality. I can change my attitude, I can work hard at turning around my self-confidence, I can beat most of these statistics because I can change those things. But I can’t change the fact I’m a woman. The emphasis on so many of these talks/schemes is on the effect, not on the cause, and that’s what sits so uncomfortably with me. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I can only think of one potential cause for the increased gender gap with academic seniority that is potentially genuinely caused by gender, and that is gender bias. But the extent of this bias, in practice, is unknown – and I find it difficult to imagine it constitutes the main cause for the statistics that get thrown at me at every opportunity.

So let’s focus on the causes, not the effects. Don’t tell me that I’m less likely to land a job because I’m a woman, or that choices I may make with respect to caring responsibilities put me in a disadvantaged minority. Do tell me how to develop personal and professional skills that will enhance my chances of a successful academic career. Do tell me, if you must, that there is an increased probability that I may have to work harder at developing these skills because I’m a woman. And, by all means, please do support and lobby for flexible support in fellowships/postdocs/academic positions, and do find a way – start a debate – on how best to assess academic excellence in a way that is independent of caring responsibilities and other commitments.

But, for my own sake and yours – do not tell me I’m at a disadvantage because I was born a woman. I might never end writing these extremely long posts if you do….

* The exception, it seems, is in the case where two candidates are judged to be equal in scientific merit, but I presume this is very much the exception rather than the rule.