Why a level playing field needs good leadership

Recently Philip Moriarty discussed on this blog both the importance of a recent Cambridge University event on what success means for women within the HE Sector and diversity issues more generally, but also (as he put it) the vacuity of leadership within a university context. “I didn’t become an academic in order to be led”, he says. Now, whereas I entirely understand this sentiment, I think in the context of improving our working environment – as opposed to structuring our research – leadership is not only important: it is vital. The lot of women in particular, will not be changed radically without decisions being taken at the top. And if that isn’t leadership I don’t know what is.

I have written in the past on my personal blog about the importance of leadership from the top, in the context of my own university and the vice chancellor’s commitment. Let me briefly revisit, building on what Phil wrote previously on Physics Focus, why I think it is so important and why in this particular case I think Phil is wrong, however appropriate his objections may be in other situations within our universities.

When I first became aware of what one might historically have termed ‘women’s issues’ – specifically within physics but also more broadly – those discussing the issues were typically women’s groups organised bottom-up. Too often, I’m afraid such groups simply became vehicles for complaint. Of course where the working atmosphere was bad, or perhaps ‘merely’ isolating and unsupportive, there was much to complain about. Structures that implicitly held women back and leaders/managers who constantly overlooked women, talked over them in meetings or dumped excessive amounts of lowly-regarded tasks on them out of all proportion to the average in a department, were all too common. Women rightly wanted to talk to other women about the unfairness of it all. But frequently that was all they could do. Regularly they had no route for their voices of dissatisfaction to be heard. Having valid cause for complaint unfortunately does not equate to change.

And that is why an event like the one we organised in Cambridge was addressed to the ‘leaders’ from universities around the UK. We weren’t wanting them to make pious statements of intent – those of the variety that Phil feels are vacuous – but actually to enact policies that would support minorities and make the workplace better for all. By all means leadership should listen to the bottom-up concerns, but self-help groups can only identify the problems, and possibly suggest solutions they believe would work – but not enforce procedural change or put money on the table to make sure there genuinely is support for minorities.

Let me give some concrete examples relevant to physics but also more widely, starting with support for students (undergraduate and graduate). In my department, a group of female students got together and wanted to organise some events with inspiring external (and female) physics speakers, plus some social events. This costs money. Not much but a little, and they approached the head of department. Andy Parker, being deeply committed to these issues, made that little money available and a longer-term sustainable programme is being put in place.

If we move up the ladder of seniority, since women in physics departments tend to be in such a minority, there is the danger of well-intentioned managers asking them to serve on far more committees than their male colleagues (and not necessarily the ones with real power either) in an attempt to approach gender balance on each one. Unless this is monitored, unless workload models are constructed and the data evaluated to check for this overload, women may all too often find themselves burdened in ways that may not be advantageous to their careers. Management/leadership needs to ensure fair workloads are apportioned transparently.

Finally there are policies that require the university leadership as a whole to act. In this category I would include ensuring that promotion criteria adequately reflect the full suite of activities academics may engage in and not just effectively end up counting the number of Nature papers or total grant income. These are the sort of topics that the Meaning of Success event specifically explored, since the book the University of Cambridge published last year demonstrated that the women we interviewed had a broader view of what ‘success’ looked like than the sum of the crude metrics too often used as a proxy for a real assessment of excellence.

Another action Cambridge has put in place is a Returners’ Scheme. With hard cash on the table, anyone (male or female) returning from six months or more leave (this may include sick leave, parental leave or other caring responsibilities for instance) can apply for grants of up to £15,000 to help them get back on their feet. This might cover assistance in field work, paying for an accompanying person to travel to look after a small child at a conference, or some minor capital item to kickstart a research programme. We know how valuable those who’ve benefitted from such grants have found these quite modest sums of money because they’ve said so; we also know such explicit support from the University conveys the message that returners are valued and it has encouraged many who might otherwise have felt dubious about their status after an extended period of leave. This programme does cost quite substantial amounts and is only possible because of commitment from the very top in finding that money.

So, for all these reasons, I think on this occasion Phil Moriarty has got it wrong. Leadership does matter to drive cultural change within an organisation such as a university. When it comes to procedural issues such as unconscious bias training, the leadership needs to tell people what to do. Unless this becomes mandatory those who would most benefit from the training may not make the time and effort to do so. Reluctant department heads may drag their heels about ensuring the working environment is comfortable for all if there isn’t some sort of central oversight providing a mild stick of expectation. Bottom-up is great for pointing out the problems and challenges, but without support from above effective solutions will not be put in place.

Athene Donald

Professor Dame Athene Donald is a Professor of Experimental Physics and Master of Churchill College. Her research is in the general field of soft matter and physics at the interface of biology; she has published over 250 papers in these fields. In recent years she has become heavily involved with policy issues, ranging from chairing the Royal Society’s Education Committee to chairing the Scientific Advisory Council of DCMS.She served on University Council (2009-14) and was the University’s Gender Equality Champion (2010-14). She is currently a member of the Scientific Council of the ERC and a former Trustee of the Science Museum. As well as various prizes from the IOP and Royal Society, she won the 2009 L'Oreal/Unesco Laureate for Europe award.

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