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.

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:


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.


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

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.