merit and demerit

When I graduated many years ago, the hall was filled with people from around the world: different colours, different races, different religions, as many women as men. Now some 30 years later, I’m often the only woman in a room full of white men. When I ask my peers where all the diversity has gone, they shrug their shoulders and say “We appoint on merit”.

Actually, they’re wrong. We don’t appoint on merit. We appoint on metrics.

rethinking merit and metrics

The accepted norms of the higher education workplace are an obsessive focus on a very narrow set of metrics as a proxy for merit, a high attrition of women, a lack of diversity in leadership, and sometimes the development of toxic unwelcoming workplaces.

We need to rethink how we measure merit and we need to consider demerit too so that we can be confident that the people we invest with power, leadership and decision-making are not sexist, racist, homophobic or bullies.

To start, we need to look at what we mean by merit. The dictionary defines merit as the “quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward”. I don’t think anyone would argue that we shouldn’t appoint leaders on merit using that meaning. In a society that is diverse, like ours – 50% women, multicultural – you would expect that merit and the power and leadership earned as a result, would be evenly distributed across diverse demographics. But it’s not.

For some reason, promotion on merit does not give everyone a fair go. Leadership, power and decision making are concentrated almost uniformly in a narrow demographic: old white men.

Yet the data show that leadership teams with greater diversity and differing life experience generate better outcomes. More diversity provides a competitive edge. If we focus on gender, for example, companies with more women on their boards make larger profits. Really, investors should only support companies with women CEOs. They’d make a lot more money. What about research? Well, teams of mixed gender produce higher quality research and a higher proportion of women increases team collective intelligence. What’s more, when organisations improve things for women they make things better for everyone by increasing access to parental leave, flexible work practise, better work life balance.

The attrition of diversity impacts negatively on productivity and innovation in academia. Yet when the dominant group are challenged about the lack of diversity in senior academic positions, their defense often focuses on the word “merit”. When we probe further, we find that merit here actually means metrics. Most importantly, we don’t measure demerit at all. Let me explain.

easy to measure metrics

To assess merit in academia, we measure a few specific things. The number of publications, the number of grants, the number of PhD students. These numbers focus on a very narrow selection of things that people and universities do. And it is no coincidence that these metrics are also easy to measure. The problem comes when we use these “easy to measure” metrics as a proxy for merit. We have now evolved ever more cryptic numbers (H index, IF, etc) that mean nothing to those outside the sector but which are avidly pursued within the sector, almost to the exclusion of everything else. The higher the numbers, the better and more valued you are. We chase after these metrics – but do they really measure what we should be measuring?

personal qualities we value

creativity     critical thinking   resilience   motivation   persistence   curiosity   endurance   reliability    enthusiasm   empathy   self-awareness   self-discipline leadership   courage     civic-mindedness    compassion    integrity   resourcefulness    honesty   sense of beauty   sense of wonder    generosity  humour   humility  kindness   consideration authenticity care

(Collated by US education policy researcher, Gerald Bracey with a few extra that I threw in)

In my opinion, it is the above list of personal qualities that should be considered when rewarding merit and choosing leaders. Yet none of these are measured directly and most are not measured at all when we assess the merit of people and higher ed institutions using current metrics. That means there is a disconnect between the metrics we use and the actual merit of a person or an institution based on these qualities.

We need new metrics. Metrics that value personal qualities. We should not measure how many PhD students an institution produces, we should measure how well an institution supports their PhD students. Universities should be assessed on how inclusive they are, how diverse their senior executive is, and how well they support the work-life balance of their staff. After all, university rankings are meant to help students and staff identify the best places in the world to study, work and do research. That should mean measuring which universities provide the safest and most supportive workplaces where everyone – not just those who fit into a very narrow demographic – can succeed. Professors should be assessed, for example, on how well they sponsor and mentor others to achieve research, teaching and service goals (with more weighting given to supporting diversity), not how many people are in their group or how much money they have received in grants.

And then we also need to look at the other side of the coin.

demerit 

The dictionary defines demerit as a “fault or disadvantage”, or “a mark awarded against someone for a fault or offence”. When we measure the worth and value of someone or some institution we ought to consider demerit alongside merit. When a professor tells a sexist, racist or homophobic joke, that should count as demerit. When a university supports or organizes a conference with an all white male list of speakers, that must count as demerit.

Our current focus on a very narrow set of metrics as a proxy for merit sometimes leads to or supports selfish, unprofessional or even unethical behaviours that can generate toxic workplaces. Harassment is one such toxic behaviour that pushes women out. In a recent study, 64% of scientists surveyed about their experience on field trips reported sexual harassment; 22% reported sexual assault. The majority of those reporting harassment and assault were young (undergrads, postgrads, postdocs) and female. The perpetrators were predominantly male and senior. The power differential makes it very difficult for the victim to report the bad behaviour; the perpetrator may be a highly respected person with huge metrics. They are “too valuable” to lose, too powerful to challenge. The power differential silences and shames the victim. Even when unethical behaviour is reported it may not be dealt with appropriately.

Sometimes I wish there were a Demerit App – one that silences and shames the bully, harasser, or predator. So that when a married male professor won’t stop looking down the shirt of a female postdoc, she can press the thumbs down button against the professor’s name. The professor would be denied access to his laptop and portable electronic devices for an hour. If two or more people activate the app, the professor would be locked out for an even longer time and a message sent to the supervisor who would need to take action or they too would earn demerit points. Demerit points would accumulate for each individual and for each institution and would be deducted from the metrics used to calculate a person’s merit and a university’s international ranking.

it’s time for change

We are now well into a new millennium. But we are stuck in the stereotypes of the past. This roadblock is limiting our decision-making, our progress, our innovation. To move forward, we need to challenge the current norms; define merit much more broadly; measure qualities we value in people but which are hard to measure; and we must value ethical behaviour. Most importantly, we need to assess demerit alongside merit to gauge the true worth of a person or an institute. This way we can bequeath new models of success and leadership to the next generation to help fix the problems we have inherited from the past.

In this revolutionised workplace, academics with integrity, empathy, respect and compassion – as well as critical thinking and creativity – will be rated highest and valued most of all.

______________________________________________________________

This post is based on a TedX talk I gave at the University of Queensland on 23 May 2015. The video is here. (updated with new link on 10 Jan 2016)

but what can I do?

The theme of International Women’s Day 2015 was “Make it Happen“. Over the past few months I’ve been asked to speak on that topic at my home institution, and at other venues in Australia and in the UK. In those talks I report the stats and reasons for the poor progression of women in academia and also suggest how individuals and institutions might make change happen. After those talks I am invariably asked to provide copies of the “what can I do” slides. I’ve been asked so many times now, that it seems easiest to post these ideas on my blog, so that I can point all future requests here.

This is a living document. My slides are updated regularly, whenever I come across new ideas that may help address the status quo and overturn gendered stereotypes in academia. I will do the same with this post and welcome suggestions from others.

This list is a collection of ideas brought together through my reading, correspondence and thinking about where we are now, where we need to be and how to get there.

WHAT CAN INSTITUTIONS DO?

If we don’t actively and intentionally set out to include women, we will unintentionally exclude themElizabeth Broderick, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner.

1. Make gender equity a priority. Don’t put it last on the strategic plan. Don’t consider it last on appointment shortlist processes or when deciding departmental/panel speakers. Put it first. Select women first. It matters.

2. Publish rates of pay online for men and women at each level of appointment in your institution. Is there a gendered difference? If yes, develop an action plan to address the gender pay gap. If there isn’t, shout that news out to the world. Celebrate that you have solved this very tricky problem. Explain how you achieved that momentous outcome, so that others can learn and solve the problem too. Be a beacon.

3. Publish workforce gender statistics online. For each level of appointment in the institution, publish the percentage of women and men. Separate these into academic and professional staff appointments. Comment on any vertical segregation of women (do women predominate at undergraduate, postgraduate and lower levels of appointments but not higher levels of appointments?). Comment on any horizontal segregation of women (do women at higher levels of appointments tend to have more teaching focused or service-oriented rather than research positions?). Highlight online the gender equity issues that need to be addressed and outline the agreed diversity goals. Update these statistics annually, and measure progress. Make a competition of being the best at supporting diversity. If you are part of an Athena SWAN program you will no doubt be doing this already.

4. Include Gender Equity as an agenda item on all decision-making committees. Consider how decisions made in these committees will impact on women. Make sure there are sufficient women on those committees so that the question can be answered with credibility.

5. Train all decision makers in unconscious bias management. Then continually monitor the process to ensure it is working.

6. Ensure sufficient, affordable, high quality childcare places to support your students and workforce who have family responsibilities.

7. Develop a central webpage for women. Highlight the support the institution provides for women and families – specifically those on parental leave, those returning to work from parental leave, and those who have primary carer responsibility. Explain how career disruptions are managed in promotions and appointments. Provide parental leave statistics (what is available, how many men and women take this leave each year of those eligible). Outline the number of family/lactation rooms available per FTE, and where those rooms are located. Describe the flexible work options that are available. Highlight the domestic violence leave. Yes it’s a thing. In the future, women and men will be looking for the best family friendly workplaces. Be ahead of the curve and your institution will have a competitive advantage.

8. Panel pledge. Make a commitment to sponsor or support only those conferences and panels that have appropriate speaker gender balance and anti-harassment policies and processes.

9. Run a Wikibomb to create Wikipedia pages for women. There are very few women scientists/academics visible on the internet. Search google images for “professor of (your science/research)”. It’s depressing. Let’s change that, one wiki page at a time.

10. Establish new metrics that reward service, support, good mentoring. Add these to traditional metrics to value all the work staff do and use them actively in promotion and recruitment processes.

11. Evaluate staff recruitment statistics and processes. How many women applied for an advertised position relative to men. If the ratio doesn’t reflect the percentage of women and men at the appointment level below that advertised, you are doing something wrong. Look at the language and the process used in recruitment (check out this great infographic). Modify the language and processes to address gender imbalance. Consider making every post part-time and/or flexible.

12. Institute a “women only” promotion round to address historic imbalances. Yes. For real. Do this.

13. Participate in Athena SWAN/SAGE Forum. Aim for gold – be a beacon for gender equity.

14. Lobby higher education ranking agencies – state, national and international – to include professorial gender balance and professorial gender pay gap as part of the ranking equation. Yes, they will listen; I’ve done it myself. And the more institutions and individuals that ask, the more likely these will be included. Let’s make academic gender inequity history.

WHAT CAN INDIVIDUALS DO?

1. Recognise your biases. No, saying “I’m not biased” will not cut it. Everyone has biases. Good people. Men and women. Learn about your own (take the Harvard implicit association test) and then do something about them.

2. Do something about discrimination. Speak up – call out inappropriate behaviour, unconscious bias, gender stereotyping. Remember the words of David Morrison, Australian Chief of Army, and Male Champion of Change: The standard you walk past, is the standard you accept”. In Europe, 75% of women in management and higher professional positions experienced some sort of sexual harassment in the workplace in their lifetime. 75%. Find out and implement your institutional sexual harassment policy. When you experience or witness sexual harassment or microagression in the workplace, or at a conference, don’t let it slide. Explain that it is inappropriate. Ask for an apology. Report to an organiser/someone in authority. Ask for the harassment policy to be made more visible. If you are the organiser/someone in authority, don’t tolerate discrimination or harassment.

3. Be fair: Assess applications for academic positions, grants, fellowships “Relative to Opportunity”. Don’t write gendered references.

5. When there aren’t enough women (invited speakers/on a panel/in a shortlist), ask why. If the invited speaker list does not reflect the audience diversity, raise the issue with the organisers. Ask for the policy on speaker invitations. I’ve written about this before. At least twice. Ask for data on speaker gender balance to be made public on the society/institute website. You pay a registration fee to attend a conference; you should expect value for money and you should expect a speaker diversity that roughly reflects that of the audience. If all or most of the speakers are old white men and the audience isn’t, ask for your money back. Vote with your credit card. There are way too many conferences vying for your business; support the ones that best support speaker diversity.

WHAT CAN MEN DO?

“›A powerful decent man is one who cares about sharing power and sharing leadership” Liz Broderick

›“Let’s not pretend that there aren’t already established norms that advantage men. Men invented the system. Men largely run the system. Men need to change the system.” Gordon Cairns, Male champion of change

Keep these quotes as your two guiding principles. Recognise that you have privilege, power and advantage simply because you are male. Consequently, you have more opportunity to make change happen and implement processes that lead to equality. Take those opportunities.

››1. Become informed about women’s issues and gender equality. Whether you are a leader, a decision maker, a mid-career researcher or a PhD student, find out why women have been marginalised and silenced throughout history and how gendered stereotypes continue to limit innovation and progress.

2. ›Treat everyone with courtesy, dignity, respect, trust. I shouldn’t even need to say that. But I do.

3. ›Call out sexism, harassment, discrimination, condescension, bias. When you witness it, don’t let it slide. Don’t say “Just ignore that” or “It was just a joke”. Call. It. Out. It is not acceptable.

4. ›Listen to women’s stories. Believe them. Give women a voice.

5. Take the panel/conference pledge. If you are in the fortunate position to receive regular invitations to speak and present at conferences and panels, make your first response to every new invitation “May I see the speaker policy?”. Don’t accept an invitation unless there is a reasonable gender balance. If there isn’t a reasonable gender balance, suggest an alternate female speaker or three. That’s what Liz Broderick’s male champions of change do.

›6. Access flexible work arrangements. Ask for these and use them. Shorter working days, parental leave, holidays and time off with your family. Normalise the sight of a man caring for his children and family. Make it a priority.

7. ›Lean in at home – share the unpaid work equally. Globally, women spend 2.5 times more hours on unpaid care and domestic work than men. In Australia, it’s 1.8 times. In the US the total value of unpaid care for children in 2012 was estimated at $3.2 trillion. That’s 20% of GDP. The UN reported that the average global gender pay gap is 24%. In Australia it’s 18.8%; with a superannuation gap of 47%. It’s been estimated that, in Australia on average, a woman needs to work an extra 15 years to retire with the same average superannuation as a man. 15 years. The UN also reported that the penalty of unpaid work is borne by and unfairly punishes women, regardless of their work status. The 2014 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics Australia survey found that “women do more paid employment, housework, childcare combined than men, regardless of whether the man is the main earner, the men and women earn equal amounts or the woman earns more“. What can you do? Share the load. Clean the toilet, do the shopping and laundry. Not as a one off for Mother’s Day. Forever. Plan family events. Share childcare. Don’t say you’re babysitting when you care for your own children. Pack the lunches, cook the meals, organise the plumber, pay the bills, do the tax forms……

8. Take notes. In committee meetings, take notes yourself. Richard Branson does. Pour the coffee. Serve the drinks and food. Don’t stand by and let the woman do it.

(Added on 30 May 2015 a fabulous list of 35 more things)

 

›WHAT CAN WOMEN DO?

1. The first and most important rule. Should you choose to share your life with a partner, choose a supportive partner. As the great Kathleen Lonsdale – first woman Fellow of the Royal Society and crystallographer extraordinaire – said “(Your partner) must recognise your problems and be willing to share them”. From personal experience I can tell you choice of partner makes one hell of a difference to career trajectory. Maybe one day I’ll share that story with you.

2.  Allow your partner to help. Let them do the chores their way. Yes, I know it’s difficult when you have a particular way of doing things, and it’s not the way they do it and you’re a perfectionist. Believe me, I’ve been there. But the alternative is to do it yourself. Quite simply, you don’t have enough time.

3. Minimise domestic duties. Ironing is banned in our household. That is, unless my husband is being interviewed on telly. Then he has to iron his shirt himself. We have a very high tolerance for dust, a robotic vacuum cleaner, a very quiet dishwasher, and a sort-of regular but not very frequent routine for cleaning.

4. Be your authentic self. Be true to yourself. Even if it’s not what everyone else is doing. Don’t let others tell you that you can’t do (whatever) because you are a woman. They have no vision. Don’t limit yourself by following outdated stereotypes. Carve your own path in life. After all “Well-behaved women seldom make history“.

 

LET’S SEE IF I CAN SUMMARISE ALL THAT:

1. ›Put gender equity first not last

›2. Old stereotypes die hard, stamp them out

3. ›Be aware of your own biases

›4. Challenge the status quo

›5. Don’t tolerate sexism and harassment

›6. When there are few women, ask why

›7. Identify obstacles to progress

›8. Change the way we do things now

To change the way we do things, perhaps we need to “man up” less and “woman up” more. But that, dear reader, will have to be the topic of a future post.

careful, your bias is showing

Some time ago, a colleague sent me a link to this document, a “Minute to the Director, Trade Commissioner Service” that outlined opposition to the appointment of the first woman Trade Commissioner in Australia in 1963. It makes for some cringeworthy reading:

Even after some deliberation, it is difficult to find reasons to support the appointment of women Trade Commissioners“. Because whereas “A relatively young attractive woman could operate with some effectiveness, in a subordinate capacity…..A spinster lady can, and often does, turn into something of a battle-axe with the passing years“. (I wonder why that might happen?)

More than 50 years on, we don’t see official documents discriminating so blatantly on the basis of gender. There are laws against that. But vestiges of bias still remain. We do, after all, live in an historically patriarchal society where men were expected to lead, and were valued for what they did at work. Women were expected to have children and were valued for what they looked like and their relationship to men. It’s hard to shake those stereotypes.

The media certainly don’t help. Remember these recent facepalm moments? The opening paragraph of the obituary for Thorn Birds author and neuroscientist Colleen McCullough, “..plain of feature and certainly overweight..”, and the opening paragraph of the obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill “…she made a mean beef stroganoff…”. Not to mention “Rona Fairhead CBE, Cambridge and Harvard graduate, British business ambassador, former chair and chief executive of the Financial Times Group and non-executive director at HSBC and PepsiCo”. When it became clear that she was the preferred candidate to lead the BBC Trust in 2014, the sub-editor who wrote the headline ignored all those accomplishments and went with: “Mother of three poised to lead the BBC.”

As I am writing this post, a new study has just come out supporting the notion that sexism in STEM academia is dead. The authors concluded that women are preferred over men by 2:1 as tenure track candidates in the US. Notwithstanding the apparent problems with the study design, or that the data do not support the conclusions, I proffer my own flawed anecdotal evidence that support a contrary conclusion – that sexism in academia is alive and well. This is not a designed study, and the data are not analysed scientifically. It’s a limited self-selected survey describing women’s recent experiences that made them stop and think about how they are treated differently in academia. Junior women and senior women.

How has this information been collected? I often speak at universities and research institutes about gender equity. After these talks, women academics and professional staff regularly share with me their experiences of bias, harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Experiences that seem so minor they are not called out, flagged or reported. These often unconscious microaggressions feed into stereotype threat and impostor syndrome, marginalising and silencing women. Often there are no witnesses, and even when there are, the transgressions are usually trivialised as jokes. The immediate response of the women in these situations has usually been shock, paralysis. Here follows the experiences from those women who agreed to share their stories…..

On addressing gender balance and gender equity in academia…

Senior male professor “We can’t let it (addressing gender balance) affect the quality of our institution“. (Oh, but it will. It will also increase the Happiness Index and the Diversity Index).

Senior male professor “As long as the women are attractive” and then after a pause, realising this might not have been a very politic thing to say, “you know, like the men have to be sporty and athletic”.

Senior male professor to female group leader “I will lead this (ongoing venture), and I want you to be my deputy. I will set everything up the way it should be. Then you can take over as leader and just keep everything going the way I arranged it.”

A conference committee comprising middle-aged and older men decided they should address gender balance on their committee. They welcomed suggestions of new female appointees that were young, attractive and “acquiescent”, but rejected out of hand a more senior woman nominee because she was “too old“. She was younger than many of the committee members.

Lately, there has been talk of the pay gap in universities and how the sector might achieve gender pay equity. This appears to have caused confusion in some circles: “Yes, but HOW MUCH equity? Do you mean, like, 90% equity?“. (No please, tell me what you really think).

The Senior Man, Junior Woman Dynamic

A PhD student discussed her research with an invited international speaker at a conference dinner. He was not impressed with her project and said that she now had two choices. “Either make a career in research – and I can help you with this” (over another drink at the bar). “Or have babies and a family. That should be easy – you are reasonably good-looking“. Everything else, including any combination of those two, would be a waste of time. He then proceeded to hit on her.

An invited international speaker attended a celebration dinner with the organising committee after a conference. Soon after everyone was seated, the lucky young woman seated immediately opposite to the speaker was surprised to feel his shoeless foot between her legs.

A senior professor asked a freshly-minted PhD student at a conference dinner “You look so yummy, won’t you come and dance with me?”.

A mid-career female group leader talking research strategy with a senior professor. Mid-sentence, he interrupts her to pick up the necklace pendant from her cleavage and ask a question about it.

Advice from a senior professor to young women researchers considering applying for early career fellowships “Have a baby, it will increase your chances of success“.

It’s not just junior women. On a tour of a science facility, a senior professor slipped his hand under the lab coat of a senior woman on the tour, placing his hand on her bottom and saying “Don’t worry, I will look after you“. (I think I know who she needs to look out for).

When the only woman attending a meeting of senior staff entered the meeting room, a senior professor patted the seat beside him, saying “Come here, sit next to me“.

Many examples of professors/supervisors who hold entire conversations with women academics, their eyes focused all the while on the woman’s breasts.

Many examples of professors/supervisors who come up behind junior women and grab them around their waist.

A primer for those who are not sure:

Let’s be clear. Touching women without permission is not OK. Neither is condescension. Nor objectification. Yet as a woman, it’s really tricky to call out overt or even microaggressive or “casual” unintentional sexism in the workplace, especially when its coming from a supervisor or a senior academic. And when unintentional or unconscious bias is present in the people sitting on hiring, promotion, grant review and fellowship committees – well I submit that this has contributed in part to the current inequity. How do we address this? The first step is to acknowledge bias. Like accents, we all have biases, but no-one likes to admit it. Yes “good” people have biases too. Men and women. So take the Harvard implicit association test and find out what your biases are. Then address them. Establish unconscious bias management training for all supervisors and all decision makers.

People in decision-making positions, senior people (and let’s face it, that most often means men), have a critical role to play. Powerful people dictate how things operate “now” and set the example for what is acceptable leadership behaviour to the next generation. Powerful good people share leadership, and support women and men equally. How can you check if you support people equally? Ask yourself the Cate Blanchett question: “Do you do that to the guys?“. If you wouldn’t say or do something to a man in the workplace – and that means the office, the lab, social events, field trips and conferences – then don’t say or do it to a woman.

Finally, think about the impact of your actions and words using this 3-point test:

1. Is this appropriate? If the answer is no or not sure, don’t say or do it.

2. Is this inclusive? If the answer is no or not sure, don’t say or do it.

3. Will this reinforce gender stereotypes? If the answer is yes or not sure, don’t say or do it.

The 2015 paper by Williams and Ceci may have concluded that women now have advantages in STEM academic careers. Me, I think there is still a long way to go.

how to measure a professor

“Many of those personal qualities that we hold dear….are exceedingly difficult to assess. And so, unfortunately, we are apt to measure what we can, and eventually come to value what is measured over what is left unmeasured. The shift is subtle and occurs gradually”. So wrote Robert Glaser of the USA National Academy of Education in 1987.

Those words – written about the standardised tests used in American schools in the 1980s – ring so true today for the way we assess academics. The things we tend to measure, because they are easy to measure, are things like publication numbers, impact factors, H-index (regrettably not the Happiness index), citations, grant income. And we tend to value most those who have big grants and papers in big name journals. Are we “driving out the very people we need to retain: those who are interested in science as an end in itself…“? Is the current “Impact factor mania (that) benefits a few” forcing academics to participate in a “winner-takes-all economics of science“? Is the “tournament” competition model ruining science by adversely affecting research integrity and creativity? Have we fallen into the trap Glaser warned of: do we now value what we can measure at the cost of losing what is actually most valuable?

Inspired by Glaser, education policy researcher Gerald Bracey generated a list:

Personal Qualities NOT measured by Standardised Tests

creativity     critical thinking    resilience    motivation   persistence    curiosity    question-asking    humour    endurance   reliability     enthusiasm    civic-mindedness    self-awareness    self discipline    empathy    leadership    compassion    courage   sense of beauty    sense of wonder    resourcefulness    spontaneity   humility

Do metrics for academics assess these qualities? In some respects, they do. Publications and grant success require a level of creativity, critical thinking, motivation, persistence, curiosity, question-asking, enthusiasm. But at best they are a proxy measure. And there are deeper issues. Counting grant income as well as scientific publications – well that’s double-dipping. What’s more, current metrics completely ignore many key responsibilities expected of academics. Committee work. Conference organisation. Reviewing. Mentoring. Outreach. I’ve been fortunate to work with fantastic supervisors and collaborators – people I trust, respect and like – but that’s certainly not everyone’s experience in academia. How do we ensure that academics with integrity, empathy, humility and compassion – as well as leadership, critical thinking and creativity – are rated highest and valued most of all if these personal qualities are not assessed or incentivised? In my mind, the best metrics would (1) enable a fair assessment relative to opportunity, (2) assess more of the duties expected of academics and (3) report on the personal qualities we hold dear in people we want to work with.

To address point 1, the metrics for those who have made it – full professors – ought to be different from those we use to assess academics still in the pipeline.

How might we measure a professor? Well let’s imagine a few more new metrics…..

Publication Efficiency. Currently we focus heavily on three metrics: publication quantity, publication quality and grant income – and “more is better”. Professors are expected to secure competitive grants, attract junior researchers (many bringing in their own competitive fellowships) and train scholarship-funded students. The more dollars pulled in (grants, scholarships, fellowships), the more people in the team, and hence the more outputs generated. But large teams are not necessarily better. How productive has the team leader been with those funds? Using the publication efficiency (PE) metric, publication metrics are weighted by income:

PE = PO/RI

where PO is a measure of publication output over the past 5 years (eg POc could be total citations past 5 years, POn number of publications past 5 years etc etc) and RI is the total research income over the past 7 years (that is, the certified total dollar value of all grants, all scholarships and all fellowships to all team members over that time). Seven years is chosen for research income aggregate, rather than five years, because it takes time to generate scientific publications. The higher the PE, the better.

Sponsorship Index. One of the most important roles a professor can take on is training the next generation of research leaders. Trouble is, the way we rank and assess academics leads to a hypercompetitive environment. Take for example publications, the major currency of academia. The senior author position on papers is highly coveted because it identifies the intellectual leader of the research. Future grant success (= future survival) for senior academics requires senior author papers – and the more the better. A well-established professor, leading a large group, traveling extensively and with a large admin/committee/teaching load, relies on mid-career researchers within the team to generate ideas, direct the day-to-day research, train students, analyse results, write the papers. Yet the way the system works at present, the professor needs to take the senior author positions on papers. This is justified because the work was done in the professor’s lab, using equipment or protocols they established and using grant money they brought in to cover the salaries of the team members. The sponsorship index, SI, changes the incentives. It rewards professors for supporting mid-career researchers in a team:

SI = (SAS+2M+4A) / N

where N is the total number of papers from the team in the past 5 years, SAS is the number of papers over that time for which senior authorship was shared between the professor and a team member, M is the number of papers where the professor was middle author and a team member was senior author, and A is the number of papers where a team member is senior author and the professor is gratefully thanked in the acknowledgements (and not by inclusion in the author list). Requiring that a professor maximise their sponsorship index will place greater emphasis on selflessness and in turn this will help ensure career development of the next generation of academics.

Good Mentorship Score. Following on directly from sponsorship is mentorship. Using current metrics “whether you are the best or worst mentor is irrelevant“. But it’s hardly irrelevant to potential team members and colleagues. How can a PhD student or postdoc find out if a professor is a person they can rely on to help them achieve their career goals (whatever they may be)? Horror stories abound of professors who treat team members appallinglytoxic academic mentors. Sadly, despite university policies that prohibit these behaviours, it’s usually the victims that suffer most. People in positions of power above the professor may not be aware of the problem (asshole behaviour is usually directed downwards) or may have an inkling but the grant income and papers generated by the professor are too valuable to risk losing. So how to address this? My solution – get references. From former team members. HR can provide a random selection of 10 diverse former team members (ie male/female, PhDs/postdocs, different ethnicities). These referees then use a 5 point scale, where 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree, to rate the professor against various statements. You know the sort of thing: “My ideas for developing my research were respected and valued”, “I felt included and appreciated as a team member”, “My goals as a researcher and a person were supported”, “The professor was someone I respected and trusted and want to be like”, “I was confident to speak to the professor about issues that arose regarding my work-life balance”, “I was encouraged to explore career options outside the traditional academic path”. Perhaps we should also poll mid-career colleagues in the same school – for example “The professor actively helps more junior colleagues develop their career”, “The professor takes on a fair and equitable teaching and committee workload”, and “The professor is a positive and encouraging role model”. To generate the good mentorship score (GMS), the scores are averaged across all questions and all reviewers. The GMS can then be used in discussions at performance reviews and considered in a mentoring component of track record assessments for grants and fellowships.

Civic-Mindedness Tally. Academics are expected to do much more than research and teaching – though it is research and (to a lesser extent) teaching that are assessed, measured to the nth degree, and valued most highly. Those other things we do – contributing to department/institute committees, professional societies, conference organisation, peer review and community outreach are difficult to measure, so they tend not to be measured or assessed and therefore are not valued highly. The civic-mindedness tally (CMT) ensures that outstanding professorial citizens, who give their time for the good of society, are recognised for their altruistic contributions. The CMT is simply a sum for each year over the past 5 years of each certified committee, representative role, organisational appointment, grant review panel, editorial responsibility (see also academic karma for a new take on valuing peer review), science communication and community engagement – and yes I think that should include blog posts 🙂 .

I know, it’s too simplistic. But it’s better than nothing, which is what we do now. On its own, a high CMT won’t lead to *favourite* status for a professor. But in combination with current metrics, and the metrics described above, it should do wonders for improving the Happiness Index of institutions.

There you have it. That’s my philosophy for how we should measure a professor. It’s only a start, and no doubt there are many things that could be improved or are still missing (for other ideas see roadmap to academia beyond quantity and is competition ruining science?). So now over to you, what are the measures you think should be implemented to assess the qualities that really matter in our professoriate?

imagine there’s new metrics (it’s easy if you try)

Academia has become obsessed with metrics. Institutions jostle for the “top” positions in international rankings, departments are evaluated nationally to identify the “best”, and individuals are lined up against one another to find the “leaders”.

Let’s take the international rankings (eg THE, QS, SJ) for example. These were established, apparently, to help students and staff identify the highest quality universities. The rankings would allow people to make informed decisions about where to study, teach and conduct research. It follows then that a higher rank will mean more students, especially international students, and this in turn means more money coming into the business university.

Indicators used to calculate these rankings include things like academic reputation, research income, number of publications, number of citations to these papers, industry income, and the ratios of faculty:student, international:local student, international:local staff, and doctoral:bachelors student. Data are gathered from detailed surveys sent to academics, employers, and universities, as well as from companies that specialise in providing research citation data (Thomson Reuters, Scopus etc).

There are two things that are troubling about these indicators. The first is that there are no upper limits where there probably should be. Considerable effort is expended by institutions to increase each indicator with the aim of getting a top spot. If we extrapolate, without applying upper bounds, what could be the consequences of behaviours driven by these metrics? Hmm, let’s see. If the number of PhD students is a key indicator and there is no upper bound, this might lead to oversupply. In turn, this might result in PhD student disenchantment with academia during the course of their studies. If large numbers of PhD graduates are being produced, it’s likely that a considerable proportion of early career researchers will be unable to find positions in academia. The pressures on PhD students to focus on producing research papers would lead to a lack of time and opportunity to “explore (other) aspects relevant to their future career options”. This situation might produce a generation of highly intelligent, highly qualified PhD students/early career researchers who feel like failures.

The second thing that troubles me is that international rankings are meant to identify the best workplaces, yet none of the rankings evaluate important indicators like job satisfaction, work-life balance, equal opportunity. Taken to the extreme, the research quality indicators might drive behaviour that leads academics to work ridiculous hours, taking no time off during the year, not celebrating their successes, and expecting the same work ethic from their team. In this scenario, leaders of the largest research teams would thrive, because they would produce more results than smaller groups, so that we might see the rise of academic Ponzi schemes (BTW the independent development plan linked in that blog is worth checking out).

With funding cuts to research and a growing number of large teams led by senior researchers, we might also see grant funding success fall to record lows and junior researchers miss out on funding. Those who work best in collaborative, cooperative settings will become disenfranchised and demoralised in the hypercompetitive environment that develops. Researchers might consider cutting corners, and the academic pipeline will likely leak first with those who have significant domestic and caring responsibilities. Perhaps we might observe an increase in mental health issues among academics.

Hmmm, does this set of circumstances seem familiar to anyone else?

While there are good reasons to evaluate research quality and impact, it is inevitable that bad things will happen when no checks are placed on how the loftiest research heights are attained. If the goal of international rankings is truly to identify the best places to study and work, then new metrics are needed to identify institutions that combine achieving research and teaching greatness with offering the “best” diversity in their professoriate, boasting the “top” work-life balance, and supporting “leaders” who train research students for positions outside academia.

With these thoughts in mind, I’ve dreamed up a few new metrics to use alongside the more traditional ones. Maybe this combination might lead to rankings that identify the most successful, most highly productive higher education training grounds and workplaces that are also best at supporting career aspirations and mental, emotional and physical well-being.

1. The no-asshole rule

A few weeks ago at the SAGE Forum in Canberra, I heard about the no-asshole rule. We’ve all met them. We’ve all had to work with them. According to Bob Sutton who wrote the book on the no-asshole rule, assholes are defined by two characteristics:

  • after encountering the person, people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves
  • the person targets less powerful people

If these characteristics apply, there is your asshole (figuratively speaking). Bob outlined the dirty dozen* actions that assholes use on a regular basis, and described an asshole scoring system (levels 0-3) and management metric. To be eligible to participate in the new international rankings, universities must teach the no-asshole rule to freshers, employ no level 3 assholes and tolerate no level 3 asshole behaviour by staff or students (see, one of too many recent examples, Dalhousie “gentleman” student dentists). One asshole incident without consequences means the whole institution gets the big red dislike button.

2. H-index

No not that one. This is the Happiness index. Bhutan has one, it’s called gross national happiness. Staff and students at universities will be surveyed each year to measure their happiness in the workplace. Someone else has already done the hard part by working out the questions for Bhutan, though no doubt we’ll have to add a few new ones for academic happiness (eg fairness in allocation of – and appropriate recognition of – teaching and service roles, simplicity of university travel approval system, availability of high quality coffee (or tea and biccies in my case) etc). An essential indicator of happiness will be the annual leave ratio (ALR). This is a simple calculation:

ALR = ALT/ALA

where ALT is the combined number of days of annual leave taken by all staff (unprompted by HR) for the previous year, ALA is the combined number of days of annual leave available to all staff each year (with a minimum of 20 days per staff member). Universities for which all available annual leave is taken by staff would rate highest with an ALR of 1.

3. F-index

The F-index is about fairness. Despite published pay scales, men are paid more than women in the upper echelons of academia for doing the same job. Because “loadings”. In my perfect world, to be eligible to participate in international  rankings, universities would make public the average pay for men and women in leadership (professoriate and above) by posting the data on the front page of their website every Jan 1. The F-index is calculated as follows:

F = W/M

where W is the average salary for women in leadership positions and M is the average salary for men in leadership positions. Universities with the highest ratio (and thus the smallest gender pay gap) would rank highest on international rankings. It would be a fun experiment to see how long it would take for this indicator of university ranking to reverse the gender pay gap in academia. Looks like the University of Sydney will skyrocket on this measure: the VC indicated at the “Women at Sydney” event in late 2014 that remedying the gender pay disparity is a strategic objective for the university in 2015.

4. D-index

D is for diversity. Diversity is goodDifferences in perspectives and methods of approaching problems lead to better outcomes. In Australia, our universities are populated by people of diverse culture, gender, age, socio-economic status. Yet our leaders are mostly male and mostly white. The D-index measures how well the leadership teams at universities (professoriate and above) reflect the diversity of the broader university (all staff and students). For example, let’s take gender. Plenty of studies show that more women in the workplace, especially more women in leadership positions, is not only the right thing to do it’s the smart thing to do because it’s good for business. Yet gender equity in leadership positions remains at dismally low levels (<20%) across the board while male CEOs dig their heels in at quotas. To counter the entrenched system, the D-index for gender (Dg) will be evaluated:

Dg = GB(lead)/GB(all)

where GB(lead) is the gender balance or proportion of women in leadership positions (usually <0.2) and GB(all) is the proportion of women across all staff and students (usually >0.5). Most universities would have Dg values of 0.4 or below. Those who score the maximum D values of 1 would zip up to the top of university rankings. If the D-index was implemented, would we see an exponential rise in women, POC, Asian and Indigenous people in leadership positions? I’d sure like to find out.

5. K-index

K is for kids. One issue that crops up again and again, is that primary caring responsibilities often fall to women, with a consequent reduction in their academic competitiveness (unless their track record is considered, fairly, relative to opportunity). So problematic is this issue, that some women choose to forgo having children to remain competitive in their career. Why do we make it so difficult for the smartest women to reproduce? Wouldn’t it be good for the world, and for universities, if we made it easier? At the same time, male academics want to spend more time caring for their kids, but face stigma and lack of support from colleagues and bosses for taking time off for parental duties. Why do we make it so difficult for the brightest men to participate in the most important work of all? Wouldn’t it be good for the world, and for universities, if we made it easier? Germany dealt with this specific problem by awarding an extra two months to the standard 12 months paid parental leave when both parents took time off to care for their children. The K-index celebrates the birth of children to academics:

K = (A+3B+C+D)/E

where A is the number of days of parental leave taken by women over the past year, B is the number of days of parental leave taken by men over the past year, C is the number of childcare places on campus, D is the number of parenting rooms on campus and E is the total number of staff and students on campus. On this metric, those universities that best support and encourage families will rocket to the top of international rankings, and most likely will have to turn away large numbers of outstanding students and academics.

endnote

You may say I’m a dreamer (but I’m not the only one). I’m also something of a realist. No doubt if these indices are implemented, game-playing would follow with unintended consequences. Nevertheless, it’s been interesting to think about university metrics that might drive new, perhaps more socially just, workplace behaviours. Maybe I’ll dream up some indicators along the same lines for ranking individual academics in the next post….

 

*Bob Sutton’s dirty dozen

  1. Personal insults
  2. Invading one’s “personal territory”
  3. Uninvited physical contact
  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
  5. “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
  6. Withering e-mail flames
  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  8. Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
  9. Rude interruptions
  10. Two-faced attacks
  11. Dirty looks
  12. Treating people as if they are invisible

life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans

A week or so ago, my family stood in the cemetery in roughly the same place we’d stood more than two decades earlier. Though we were laying to rest a second family member, the scene could not have been more different. This time, the sun was shining. There was sadness, but no tears. The container of dad’s ashes – labelled with the metal panel from his coffin – was placed gently into the space dug near the 23-year-old plaque. Petals collected that morning from flowers in mum’s garden were sprinkled over the container, some falling on the weathered old plaque nearby. Mum commented that dad would have liked the simplicity of the ceremony.

The attendant – John – carefully filled the hole, saying he would put fresh turf over it the next day. In a broad Aussie drawl, he apologised for not wearing something more formal. Normally he would be in a suit, but he’d been called in at the last minute. Cemeteries have emergencies too. He needn’t be worried, someone said. If anything, the weekend work clothes he had on were more appropriate for dad, a working-class man. John had worked at the cemetery for many years and remarked that he sometimes stopped by the plaque and wondered about the man pictured there. The photo was of a handsome young man, taken at his best mates’ wedding where he’d officiated as best man, a month before he died.

Peter

At that time, I was a post-doc at Rockefeller University in Manhattan, New York. I’d started on April 1, 1991. I could have taken up the post a few weeks earlier, but had delayed a little so I could attend a sister’s 21st birthday party. I’m glad I did. As it turned out, the celebration was the last time all the family would be together.

By Oct 1991, six months after arriving in New York, I’d furnished my studio apartment on 63rd and York, successfully navigated the subway to find all the places I needed to get to, and had hosted several visitors from Australia. One visitor asked whether I would consider returning to Australia as a group leader. “No way,” I replied “not as a group leader. That’s far too stressful, too much work.” Strange thing to say really, I was already working days, nights, weekends in New York. I did, though, take time out to enjoy the incredible diversity of museums, cultural centres and restaurants that the city had to offer.

Friday, October 25, 1991 started off like any other. I got into the lab around 8 am, and spent a few hours purifying proteins from bacterial cultures, preparing to set up crystallisation trays later in the day. By late morning, I needed a break. I returned to the office I shared with three other postdocs. Unusually, there was no one else around, but a note had been left on my desk. It said that I should call the number written below. It was a Melbourne number, but not one I recognised.

“That’s odd” I thought “why would anyone want me to call now, it’s the middle of the night in Melbourne”. No alarm bells rang. Completely unprepared for the devastating news that was to come, I called the number and heard that I’d reached the emergency department of a major public hospital close to my family’s home. My mum and sister both worked there, so perhaps it wasn’t that unusual to get a call, but it was strange to come from the emergency department in the early morning Melbourne time. Maybe the number had been written down incorrectly, maybe mum/my sister were working night duty.

I explained to the voice on the other end of the line that I was in the USA and had been left a message to call that number. I half-expected the voice to say “Oh, sorry, there’s been a mistake; we’ll put you through to theatre (where mum worked) or CCU (where my sister worked)”. But that didn’t happen. There was a few second’s silence, then “Just a minute, we’ll put you through”. It was about then that the alarm bells started clanging.

My sister came on the line. “Jenny……something awful has happened.”

WHAT. NO. NO. PLEASE NO. WHO? MUM? DAD? The questions tumbled out.

“There’s been a car accident. Peter suffered severe head injuries. He’s just been declared dead. We are all here.“

Within a few hours, I was on a flight from JFK to MEL via LAX. It was surreal. That morning I’d been purifying protein, now I was on my way home to help organise my youngest brother’s funeral. My brother Peter. So full of life and mischief.

The service would be held on 31 October, Halloween. That day now forever linked to sorrow. Etched in my memory of that week is the physical pain of the raw grief, the utter anguish and despair that – together with the overwhelming perfume of condolence flowers – filled my parent’s home; the hundreds of “in sympathy” cards; the pathos of a phone call dad made to explain why Peter wouldn’t be coming into work any more. Choosing the clothes Peter would wear for the last time. Viewing his lifeless body. Saying goodbye.

The funeral was witnessed through a blur of tears, though some memories stick: the hundreds of young people in attendance; the sight of brothers and cousins waiting patiently with the coffin resting on their squared shoulders at the end of the service while the music master scrambled to find the recessional music; the solemn procession under racing grey clouds, of dozens of cars en route to the cemetery; the vivid green grass and muddy soil surrounding the final resting place; the gentle descent of the coffin into the earth; the bright red roses cast into the deep pit. I remember too the counsel of a friend at the wake “This is a time for grieving. When you think of Peter now there will be tears. In time, though, you’ll be able to think about him and smile.”

In loving memory of Peter William Martin. 20.4.1966 - 26.10.1991 Beloved son of Jack and Judy.  Loved brother of Anthony, Ian, Steven, Jenny, Cathy, Geoff, Jan-Maree, Carolyn and Gerard (dec) A cheeky grin, twinkling blue eyes, strategist, car enthusiast, active, helpful, loyal, gentle Peter.  These things we will remember of you with love.  The measure of your life is the love you left behind.  In God's care.

In loving memory of Peter William Martin.
20.4.1966 – 26.10.1991
Beloved son of Jack and Judy.
Loved brother of Anthony, Ian, Steven, Jennifer, Catherine, Geoffrey, Jan-Maree, Carolyn and Gerard (dec)
A cheeky grin, twinkling blue eyes, strategist, car enthusiast, active, helpful, loyal, gentle Peter.
These things we will remember of you with love.
The measure of your life is the love you left behind.
In God’s care.

Peter was 25 when he died. The same age as Phil Hughes, the Australian Test cricketer who passed away recently. Like Hughes, Peter’s death was a tragic accident. Like Hughes, Peter’s character was defined by his cheeky grin, and twinkling eyes. He had a wicked sense of humour. As a boy, he was a walking encyclopedia of facts about World War II, often interrupting movies we were watching to explain anachronisms – “that tank is wrong, it hadn’t been built at that time”. As he grew older he developed the gift of drawing you in to his world, charming you with the delight, the joy he took in whatever had captured his imagination, a book he’d just read, a historical fact he’d just discovered, a painting he was working on, his dungeons and dragons obsession. Whatever it was, in his presence it became the most important thing in the world.

Peter was 5 years younger than me, and the youngest of the 5 boys in the family. Like many brothers he could be most annoying at times, and then at other times he would be extraordinarily generous and considerate. When my black and white cat (named Sylvester, what else) disappeared I was devastated. Peter, all of 9 or 10 at the time, brought home a tiny black kitten for me, a stray he’d found on a light industry site where he delivered newspapers after school.

Despite scorning my music preferences, he offered to tape the entire 3 hour soundtrack for my 21st birthday party, and followed my instructions to the letter. As a birthday gift that year, he gave me the ugliest figurine you can possibly imagine, of a cockatoo. It was his idea of a joke, to remind me of his pet budgie Billy. A badass budgie that nipped anyone that came near him. Except Peter. He loved Peter. And yes, I still have that figurine.

figurine

When I moved to the UK to undertake a DPhil at Oxford in the late 1980s, I was desperately homesick and asked family to send Christmas gifts that would remind me of home. Peter and I both supported the same football team; he sent me his cherished bombers flag, the one he’d waved at the Essendon premiership a few years before. Sadly that flag no longer exists.

His untimely death impacted family members in different ways. For me, it meant insomnia for several weeks requiring medication, and relentless guilt for not being there when he died. It also cemented in my mind that I would not choose to live overseas for my work, even if the opportunities might be better. I vowed to knuckle down, complete the work I was doing in the US, and then return to Australia. So it was that in mid-1993, two years after declaring I didn’t want to be a group leader, I took up an ARC QEII Fellowship at the University of Queensland where I established my own protein crystallography group. Of course, there were many other reasons to select UQ. But the choice of country was not negotiable.

So when I’m asked at career forums about my career decisions, why I returned to Australia after a very successful PhD in the UK and a very successful postdoc in the US, I say I made the decision for family reasons.

It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

thank you Gough

I didn’t expect the death of former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to affect me so deeply. Perhaps I was already feeling fragile after the passing of my father, and then my father-in-law, in the past few weeks. But they were both family. Whitlam was not. And he was, after all, 98 years old. It’s not like his life was cut short; this was no tragic, untimely end.

Maybe it’s because he led Australia during a time when I first became aware of politics. But I think probably the reason I am so saddened by his passing is because his reform agenda impacted on me directly; it literally changed the course of my life. Elected in the early 1970s after decades “in the wilderness”, Whitlam’s Labor Government had a whirlwind three years in power, pushing through reforms that shaped our nation: universal health care, abolition of conscription – including releasing draft dodgers from prison – lowering the voting age to 18, implementing the racial discrimination act, no-fault divorce, the Family Law court, free tertiary education, paid maternity leave for women in the public service, and connecting outer urban areas to the sewerage system. He also established a Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and appointed the first Prime Ministerial adviser on women.

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 9.46.25 am

As David Berthold noted on twitter “Gough Whitlam, appropriately, was Australia’s 21st Prime Minister: he was our coming of age.”

 

“Only those born bereft truly know the power of opportunity” Aboriginal lawyer Noel Pearson said at Whitlam’s memorial service in Sydney this week. Maybe not bereft, I was certainly born poor, and I truly know the power that Whitlam’s vision gave me. It gave me access to an education. The family I was born into had never had anyone attend university. Indeed, neither of my parents finished high school. Tertiary education was beyond reach until Whitlam’s reforms. Born at just the right time to benefit, I took the opportunity and ran with it. I aced the Pharmacy degree in Melbourne, winning many undergraduate prizes, and that set me up for a Masters research degree in Melbourne, and then a DPhil at Oxford and a postdoctoral position at Rockefeller University in New York. My scientific research career has taken me around the world. As I write this post I am in a hotel in Tokyo, on a 2-week visit to build connections with Japanese researchers. Whitlam’s education legacy gave me the springboard to build a career and then to have a voice in my field of molecular research and in science gender equity policy in Australia.

What would my life have been without the opportunity the Whitlam Government gave me? I cannot imagine. I dare not imagine.

Whitlam’s “It’s Time” policy platform had three overarching objectives that still ring true today:

  1. to promote equality
  2. to involve the peoples of Australia in decision-making processes
  3. to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people

Thank you Gough for your vision of a fairer Australia. Thank you for giving me and millions of others equality and opportunity. Thank you for liberating my talents and uplifting my horizons.

I cherish your values. I celebrate your life. I mourn your passing.

34 obstacles women face to become CEO

In their 2014 Leadership Quarterly paper (Vol 25 Issue 2 pp 245-266 – sorry it’s behind a paywall), Terrance Fitzsimmons et al reported on the causes and timing of gender disparity in CEO roles (eg 55% of women are tertiary qualified, only 3% of CEOs are women). The authors interviewed 30 female CEOs and 30 male CEOs (matched by industry and company size) to find out how each had accumulated their leadership skills. They reported 34 causes (at 4 different timings) of gender disparity in CEO roles. That is, women face 34 barriers to their progression to CEO. Some were organisational or structural barriers. Some were discriminatory barriers. Put another way, male CEOs benefitted from 34 types of privilege or positive discrimination, that helped them succeed to the top job.

Reading through this paper, it seemed to me that these 34 obstacles might also be relevant in academia. I’m summarizing their findings here, and you can compare these to your own “lived experience” (family, education, career progression) and accumulation of “personal capital” (skills, experience, mentors, networks etc). The text in italics is taken directly from the Fitzsimmons et al paper (and I recommend you read it in full if you have access). My summaries/comments are added throughout in normal font.

Childhood

Male CEOs reported very similar childhoods to each other; there was a traditional division of labour where dad worked outside the home and mum worked in the home and cared for the kids. Female CEOs also reported very similar childhoods to each other, but their experience was quite different to the males. Almost all female CEOs reported having a mother who worked in paid employment or was involved in a family business. They almost all had to overcome adversity and take on adult roles as a child (eg through a forced international move; the death or serious illness of parents, siblings or close relatives; domestic violence or serious marital instability; or an estrangement from their parents before the age of sixteen”), through which they developed resilience and self-efficacy (I’ve written about my experience here – be warned, I’m told it’s confronting).

As children, male and female CEOs were treated differently: fathers generally encouraged boys but not girls into academia and careers; generally boys but not girls had the opportunity to take risks in their play and to develop leadership skills through team-based sports. Most female CEOs reported that a strong female role model – who did not fit the stereotypical domestic role – figured prominently in their lives as children.

Barriers for girls to develop the same “career capital” as boys were summarised as:

  1. lack of access to team based leadership activities
  2. lack of access to non-traditional female role models
  3. lack of career guidance
  4. directed into traditional tasks and roles
  5. not allowed to engage in risky childhood play

Junior management

In the early career stage, Fitzsimmons et al found that the self-confidence developed through adversity for women CEOs was not a substitute for the confidence to lead others that was accrued by men CEOs by this stage. The male CEOs had experience in leading and the women did not. This put women at a relative disadvantage.

Barriers for women at this early career stage, compared with men, were summarised as:

  1. not choosing major public company industries (in an academic setting, perhaps this would be equivalent to not training at an elite university – though I don’t know if fewer women than men train at these compared with other institutes – is there any evidence out there?)
  2. less willing to risk moving when faced with blockages (during their career, women CEOs moved far more often than men, in order to get promoted)
  3. lack of leadership capital creates heightened risk of failure
  4. lack of advice, planning and or mentoring (role models and mentors are essential in academia too, see my previous post on this issue)
  5. lack of confidence in communicating success (Impostor syndrome. Also, women CEOs attributed much of their success to the help of mentors; men CEOs were more likely to take credit for their success themselves)
  6. double bind in leadership roles (men are expected to be aggressive, women to be sensitive/compassionate. Yet women are evaluated negatively whether their leadership style is too feminine or too masculine.)
  7. not given line roles (opportunities are passed to men rather than to women)
  8. sexual harassment (yep, that’s a problem in academia too, see a previous post)

Middle management

By this point in their careers, most male CEOs had adopted their childhood model of a family unit: their wife worked in the home, was primary carer of their children and took responsibility for all domestic duties. Men CEOs interviewed often noted that having a family contributed positively to their career. Women CEOs reported the opposite: they had to “develop strategies to ensure their…career capital was not at risk”. Women CEOs that had children were the primary carers, had taken career breaks (usually quite short), had supportive partners, and engaged others to help with kids.

Barriers for women at this mid-career stage, compared with men, were mainly due to caring responsibilities, lack of support structures, and discrimination on the basis of gender:

  1. work structure: can’t part-time or job share line roles
  2. difficult to return to line roles/skills diminishment (after career breaks)
  3. selection methodologies: application versus sponsorship (differences were apparent in the way female and male CEOs were appointed to middle-management – women applied on their own initiative, men were sponsored)
  4. flexible work practices lack experiential credibility and resented (flexible work practices can be even more difficult for men to access for the same reason)
  5. lack of appropriate childcare/partner support (childcare access also a problem in academia)
  6. constrained in accepting international assignments (those women CEOs who reported international experience had gained that before they migrated to Australia)
  7. lack of opportunity to acquire social capital (lack of time due to family commitments meant that women CEOs focused on completing tasks rather than developing networks)
  8. children and relationships causing opting out (this is also a reason women leave academia at the mid-point in their career)
  9. assumption of having children: “will leave anyway” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  10. won’t put in hours: “lack of commitment” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  11. optionality of career: “lack of drive” (women with children, but not men, are discriminated against in this way)
  12. fear of reputational damage to mentors through sexual innuendo (another double bind; there aren’t many females up ahead who can act as mentors to mid-career women)

Executive management

When it comes to the source of the CEO appointment stage, once again there were some distinct differences in the narratives of men and women CEOs. Men were twice as likely to be appointed to the CEO position through an executive recruitment agency. Women were twice as likely to be appointed through an informal contact.

Barriers for women at this stage, compared with men, appeared to be due to leadership stereotypes and perceptions:

  1. lack of visibility to board networks
  2. lack of breadth and depth of experience relative to peers (presumably due to barriers at earlier stages)
  3. cultural inertia: it’s just the way it is (don’t blame us – it’s society/system fault – Athene Donald wrote about this same issue recently)
  4. riskier appointments result in failure (the glass cliff)
  5. disconnect between diversity management and succession planning (making the right noises but not the right actions)
  6. not credible in front of stakeholders (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  7. doesn’t possess appropriate leadership traits (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  8. doesn’t possess the confidence or resilience to be CEO (discrimination by boards; implicit bias)
  9. informal interview processes/co-option (discrimination in appointment processes)

What next?

It seems there is quite a bit of overlap in the issues affecting gender disparity in CEOs and leadership positions in academia and science. However, many of the barriers outlined above are not only barriers to women, they also block progression of those who don’t fit the white male heterosexual stereotype of leadership, and perhaps those who do fit that stereotype but who want to participate more fully in raising their children.

The finding that so many structural barriers and implicit biases are in play makes for sobering reading. On the other hand, that these 34 obstacles are now identified from this cohort of achievers can help us develop processes to remove them in the future. For example, some of the barriers for girls to develop leadership skills and self-efficacy during childhood are being addressed by Gina Meibusch through her innovative Girl Guides QLD Women of Substance program with the tagline “if they see it, they can be it”.

Going back to those 34 obstacles, it seems that I’ve been pretty lucky in my “lived experience”. By my count, only half of the barriers apply to me. Mostly because I don’t have children and because my childhood experience as eldest girl in a large family helped me develop self-efficacy (defined as a “belief in one’s own ability to complete tasks and reach goals”). There were one or two obstacles not listed in the Fitzsimmons paper that probably held me back in mid-career. Maybe I’ll write about those some time.

But now over to you. How did you fare against the 34 obstacles in your own “lived experience” and “accumulation of career capital”?

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*updated on 1 Sept 2014 with correct link to Women of Substance*

*updated on 1 April 2017 to correct numbered lists

light at the end of the tunnel?

This week was pretty amazing. First I returned from more than 3 weeks away – **ON HOLIDAYS** – without email or internet (well not much anyway). As always, it was a mad scramble to catch up with things the first day back. And if I’m honest, I’ve still not quite caught up on everything.

Then, on Tuesday afternoon I traveled to Canberra to prepare for a very important meeting run by the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Forum. The SAGE Forum is an initiative of the Australian Academy of Science, and is chaired by two incredible scientists, Nobel Prize Winner/ARC Laureate Fellow/FAA/astronomer Prof Brian Schmidt (ANU) and ARC Georgina Sweet Laureate Fellow/FAA/mathematician Prof Nalini Joshi (Sydney Uni). The SAGE steering committee also comprises Dr Roslyn Prinsley from the Chief Scientist’s Office, Prof Sharon Bell DVC Charles Darwin University/author of previous reports highlighting gender inequity in academia, and Dr Marguerite Evans-Galea from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and former Chair of the Academy’s Early- and Mid-Career Researcher Forum. And me. Regrettably Prof Caroline McMillen, VC and President at the University of Newcastle was unable to attend. What a team though. It’s humbling, inspiring and exciting in equal parts to be part of this incredible group.

The SAGE Forum Development meeting on Wednesday 31 July 2014 also included invited representatives from the following organisations:

  • Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes
  • Australian Academy of Science
  • Australian Research Council
  • Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
  • CSIRO
  • Defence Science Technology Organisation
  • Group of Eight Universities
  • Innovative Research Universities
  • National Health and Medical Research Council
  • Office of the Chief Scientist
  • Regional Universities Network
  • Research Australia Rural Research and Development Corporations
  • Universities Australia

We were all there to talk about gender equity in science, research and academia. To my knowledge this is the first time these organisations have been brought together to discuss this issue. We began with the data – presented first by Roslyn Prinsley showing that in Australia, in all fields of science and engineering, women progress through the pipeline at considerably slower rates than men. Then Sharon Bell presented new data supporting these figures and revealing that women are leaving in much greater numbers than men in large part because of the casualisation of the workforce, including the prevalence of short-term contracts in research and academia.

My contribution was to present on the Athena SWAN charter run by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) in the UK, which represents one possible model for addressing the systemic problems. Athena SWAN was established in 2005 in response to the chronic under-representation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine (STEMM), and the negligible change in progression of women in STEMM since the 1990s (i.e. the same issues we face in Australia). During my recent holidays in the UK I had the opportunity to visit the ECU in London and to talk with the CEO David Ruebain and the Athena SWAN manager Sarah Dickinson. They also very kindly provided me with information to present at the SAGE Development meeting.

The Athena SWAN Charter’s 6 guiding principles are simple:

1. To address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation

2. To tackle the unequal representation of women in science requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation

3. The absence of diversity at management and policy-making levels has broad implications which the organisation will examine

4. The high loss rate of women in science is an urgent concern which the organisation will address

5. The system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences for the retention and progression of women in science, which the organisation recognises

6. There are both personal and structural obstacles to women making the transition from PhD into a sustainable academic career in science, which require the active consideration of the organisation

Athena SWAN members apply for awards that recognise attainment and leadership in gender equality. A University department can only apply for awards once the University has achieved a bronze award. Currently, there are 319 award holders (61 Bronze universities, 4 Silver universities, 162 Bronze departments, 85 Silver departments and 7 Gold departments).

Why is Athena SWAN different? Because of what it is NOT. It is not simply a box-ticking exercise to show that appropriate policies are in place (eg family friendly support packages, support for women returning from extended leave) although these are clearly important. Instead, Athena SWAN requires member organisations to:

1. Collect data on women’s progression within their organisation
2. Critically analyse that data
3. Identify reasons for exclusion and under-representation of women
4. Develop an action plan to address these reasons (so that action plans will necessarily be unique to each department)
5. Show progress over time

There were 10 founding members of Athena SWAN in 2005, including the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Now the charter boasts 115 members. A turbo boost came in 2011, when Dame Sally Davies (Chief Medical Officer in the UK) announced that as of 2015 large MRC funding to departments would be conditional on an Athena SWAN Silver award. According to David Ruebain and Sarah Dickinson, this changed the landscape in the UK – universities now see an Athena SWAN award as a necessary measure of excellence, and departments want to be involved to show how well they are doing on this issue. Recently the NHMRC in Australia suggested they might also tie funding to gender equity.

To date, there have been two reviews of the impact of Athena SWAN in the UK: one in 2011 performed by the ECU itself and then another this year run independently by the University of Loughborough. Both found similar outcomes. Better visibility of women; better representation of women on decision-making committees; increased proportion of women in STEMM departments; improved working practices to support career progression. Interestingly, the report noted that “the good practices implemented generally benefits all staff and contributes to improving the working environment and culture within their institutions”. Making things better for women, makes things better for everyone. More flexible work options, better work-life balance, different models of success.

Athena SWAN has been so successful, and so visibly successful in a relatively short space of time, that this year the Republic of Ireland signed up to work with the ECU on a 3-year pilot study for its own universities. Athena SWAN is also being rolled out to independent research organisations within the UK. These organisations want to be involved because Athena SWAN is an informed, tested, validated system, with procedures established that lead to real and substantial change.

After these presentations at the SAGE Development meeting, a general discussion followed of where we are at and where we need to go next. As reported in the Australian media, there was a consensus around the table that gender inequity is a systemic problem and that action needs to be taken urgently. One way to address this might be to adopt something like Athena SWAN in Australia. The next step in the process is a SAGE Forum workshop (25th and 26th November 2014) involving representatives from all universities and medical research institutes, as well as the organisations listed above, and the SAGE steering committee. The Office of the Chief Scientist has provided financial support to organise the workshop. David Ruebain and Sarah Dickinson from the ECU in the UK will attend and present on the Athena SWAN model.

These are exciting times. There appears to be a pinpoint of light at the end of the tunnel, but much more remains to be done. I urge you to please encourage, lobby, hector your university, medical research institute, or other research organisation to send a representative with some clout to the SAGE Forum workshop in November. For more information on the workshop please contact the SAGE Forum.

We need to ensure everyone is consulted, everyone has buy-in, everyone is on board. Let’s work together to fix the system. Let’s make the system work better for everyone.

 

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visible signs of support

This past week or two has seen very encouraging signs for women in Australian science and research.

First, the CEO of the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Prof Warwick Anderson, announced that Australian universities and medical research institutes were on notice (Act on equality or risk funding, unis told Monday 16th June). (Sorry that some of the links in this post are behind paywalls – there is a supporting video featuring Prof Warwick Anderson and Dr Saraid Billiards from the NHMRC).

In 2013, the NHMRC had requested information on policies that were in place to support women at NHMRC-funded universities and research institutes. Over half didn’t respond at all. The NHMRC committee for women in health sciences (of which I am a member) were charged with reading through the submissions, and identifying the best gender equity measures. These are outlined here. We also added a few measures of our own that didn’t feature in any submissions, including – dare I say it – seminar series gender balance.

The NHMRC evaluated the submissions itself and concluded separately that very few universities or research institutes scored highly in support measures for women. Unis and institutes were then asked by the NHMRC CEO last week to provide further evidence of their effective gender equity policies. Prof Warwick Anderson indicated that responses could impact on the allocation of future NHMRC funding of over $800M pa.

The early and mid-career researchers Forum (EMCR Forum) of the Australian Academy of Science had been proposing such measures more than a year ago. This week, the EMCR Forum welcomed the move by NHMRC and called for the Australian Research Council – which funds fundamental and applied research with the exception of clinical medicine and dentistry – to follow NHMRC’s lead to promote “positive action to close the gender gap in Australian science”.

The next major announcement was on Tuesday 17th June, when Adam Bandt MP (Greens) – the Federal member for Melbourne – gave a speech in the House of Representatives highlighting the issue of women in science and research.

He noted that women scientists are chronically under-represented in our universities and research organisations, and that this is unacceptable in 21st-century Australia.  He reported that the NHMRC’s ratings of the country’s universities and institutes found that 70% of those that responded were unsatisfactory or poor. He also noted Prof Warwick Anderson’s statement that “we are throwing away talent”. Adam Bandt suggested that work-life balance and job insecurity were major issues for women, and that “(the time when young) researchers are establishing their careers is also the time when women have to decide whether to continue with their career or to start a family. This is not a conflict they should have to face and it is not one male researchers typically face”.

Actually, some men suggest that one way of overcoming gender inequity is for men to actively take on this conflict. Andrew Brooks and Andrew Siebel made the point on the Women in Science Australia blogsite earlier this month that unis and institutes should provide support to men to allow them to participate fully in childcare and parenting. Moreover, they argued, we as a society should remove the cultural stigma applied to those men who do take time off from their careers to care for their children. I couldn’t agree more.

But let’s get back to Adam Bandt’s speech. He said that missing out on women in science means missing out on new ideas and innovations. He noted the UK model of supporting women in science through the Athena Swan Charter and stated “This is exactly the sort of framework this country’s research institutes should look at”.

This was music to my ears. Music, sweet music, that also brought tears to my eyes. Many others felt the same. One memorable tweet from @deborahbrian that day, “Just a little bit in love with @adambandt today”.

But that wasn’t the end of it.  On Wednesday 18 June it was reported that the Australian Academy of Science is “pushing for the research sector to follow the UK and adopt a charter to promote better gender equity policies within institutions” (Calls for gender equity get louder). Just today, Nobel Laureate and ARC Laureate Fellow Prof Brian Schmidt at the ANU stated “I don’t believe alpha males are any better at research than anyone else. But they do very well on average. As they say, he who shouts loudest gets the most attention.” (Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt leads academy’s equity push – sorry, it’s behind a paywall). He supports “a proposal for Australia to adopt the British system which encourages research institutions to sign on to a charter and have their equity policies independently assessed.”

In Feb this year, the Academy established the Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Steering Committee to drive this process. The committee is chaired jointly by Brian Schmidt FAA (ANU Canberra) and Nalini Joshi FAA (ARC Laureate, U Syd) and also includes Sharon Bell (DVC Charles Darwin U Darwin, author of the 2010 FASTS Women in Science in Australia report and the soon to be released update previewed here), Caroline McMillen (VC U Newcastle NSW), Roslyn Prinsley (Office of the Chief Scientist, Canberra), Marguerite Evans-Galea (Founding Chair of the Australian EMCR Forum within the Academy, Melbourne), and myself (ARC Laureate, U Qld, Brisbane).

The SAGE Steering Committee is convening a development meeting in Canberra on July 30. Representatives from research stakeholders across the country have been invited to contribute to a dialogue to discuss the UK’s Athena Swan Charter, and to find a solution that is fit-for-purpose for Australia.

So let’s check all that again. 1. The Chief Executive Officer of the NHMRC. 2. A Federal MP. 3. The Australian Academy of Science. 4. A Nobel Laureate. Each highlighted that there is a problem regarding the progression of women in science in this country. Each stated that this issue needs to be addressed. Although brewing for some time, these announcements all happened in a little over one week. In Australia. Seriously, I had to pinch myself. Several times.

This flurry of activity has certainly garnered the attention of those passionate about addressing gender inequities in science in Australia. Hopefully it’s also enough to get the attention and action of those who are not (yet).

So what can you do as an Australian researcher/scientist? Let your university or institute know that you want change. Better support for women. Better gender equity policies. More diversity in leadership. These measures benefit everyone. Let’s make a competition out of being the best at supporting diversity.

**Updated some hours after posting with a weblink to AAS SAGE Forum