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.

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.


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”?


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

*updated on 1 April 2017 to correct numbered lists

sexism and the seventies: back to the future?

Perhaps I should explain how it is that I’ve become so vocal about addressing the attrition of women in academia. I can pinpoint the start of it to a place, and a time about 5 years ago. But for the full story I need to take you back with me to my early teenage years. And that was many years ago. In the dark ages. Before twitter. Before facebook. Before the internet. Before email. Before …well you get the message. It was in the 1970s.

Things were different then. Most women stayed at home after they married. For my family, my mum had to work; there were 9 children to support and that definitely needed two incomes. As the eldest girl in the family, a lot of the caring and housekeeping responsibilities fell to me. But I digress. That’s not where this story is going, though I might return to it at some point in a later post.

What I wanted to share with you were two events from this long-ago time. Two incidents that occurred in relatively quick succession. These events marked my realisation that I was growing up, that society saw me as a young woman, even if I didn’t yet accept that. Both events occurred as I was walking home alone from high school.

On the first occasion, it began with a car full of young men driving in the opposite direction and yelling obscenities at me; I ignored them, put my head down and continued uphill, quickening my pace and hoping they would drive on. Chillingly, the driver of the car executed a U-turn and pulled up beside me, with the men now shouting lewd remarks from a much closer vantage point. Adrenaline kicked in, I made my own U-turn running as fast as I could back down the hill. To my terror, the car reversed to keep pace with me, while the men inside continued their offensive and humiliating tirade. It only ended when I ran into a house – any house – and knocked on the door to ask for help, breathless and in tears, but there was no-one home. Fortunately, the car drove off and I made my way home again.

On the second occasion, I noticed a young man bicycling towards me on the pavement. I moved to my left to make room for him to pass, but instead he veered towards me.  As he closed in he made a deliberate move to grope my breast. This time, I took the offensive. I shoved back with all my might, pushing him off-balance and off his bike. Then I ran hell for leather for home, which was mercifully just a few hundred metres around the corner.

The terror I felt on both occasions can still be recalled with complete clarity. And with it the sense of shame, powerlessness, confusion, revulsion. I’d done nothing to provoke the harassment on either occasion. I was just a girl walking home from school.

When I look back to this time growing up, I recognise that most days nothing happened. Yet it is these two events that stick in my mind. Perhaps because I learned an important life lesson, to be aware, to be alert. That I was a target because I was a woman.

I had hoped that since the 1970s things would have improved for young women and girls. That’s not the case though. The same things – and much, much worse – happen every day as documented by Laura Bates’ @EverydaySexism project. The mission of the project is “By sharing your story you’re showing the world that sexism does exist, it is faced by women everyday and it is a valid problem to discuss.”

Last year, @EverydaySexism asked people to post their experiences of everyday sexism in academia. I was horrified to read the tweets that came in. The same things that happened to me as a young academic so many years ago were still happening now. In 2013. Women’s bottoms were being pinched, their ribs being tickled from behind by senior male colleagues, they were receiving excessive unwanted attention from males at conferences. Thank God for @EverdaySexism, “Women are silenced through sexual harassment every day. Now it is time to speak out”. Women now had a voice.

I didn’t tweet anything to @EverydaySexism at the time. But I’ll share a few of the everyday sexism experiences from my academic career. The first occurred about 15 years ago, when I was a mid-career researcher struggling to find my place in the world of academia. A male professor, and collaborator of mine, sat with two or three younger male colleagues in the tea room and, whenever any young woman entered the room, discussed aloud whether she was wearing a G string.

I said nothing.

Then, about 5 years ago at an international conference in Europe, I overheard 3 male PhD students discussing another conference delegate, a female PhD student who had won the major poster prize. They weren’t discussing her research, or her brilliance. They were discussing her physical attributes and what they would do to them if they had the chance. It was sickening.

I said nothing.

Over the next days and weeks I grew angry with myself. I was by now a senior academic, a professor, someone of status. Why didn’t I say anything? Why should this behaviour go unchallenged? I thought about the young female student and wondered what she would have to put up with if those male PhD students, or men like them, became her colleagues, collaborators, peer reviewers in the future.

Then I got my answer. A female colleague, a professor at another university in Australia, was in a conference committee meeting. She was the only woman present, in a group of 8 or 9. It was a dinner meeting and alcohol was involved. That’s not to justify what happened, just to set the scene. The woman offered  an opinion on a specific discussion point, and the immediate response from one of the men – a leading light in the Australian science scene – was “That’s like cocksucking”.

Surprised at how her idea was dismissed out of hand, she asked what he meant by saying that. He boomed back “Come over here and I’ll show you!”.

All the men laughed: some loudly, some nervously. The woman said nothing.

I hasten to add that most men I work with respect women and women’s opinions. But how many men put in a similar situation would call out such overt sexual harassment. How many would let it slide and laugh along with others. It was a joke right? Get a sense of humour.

What would you have done?

Anyway, as a consequence of these events, I decided to become more informed. I began attending gender equity workshops, collecting data on the attrition of women in academia, and presenting at women in science events. I joined twitter and followed a number of women in science feeds. Through twitter I learned about this. And this. And this. And much more besides. I remember thinking last year at the height of these twitter storms, enough is enough, someone should do something about this. Then I realised that I was someone, and I could do something. So now I do. I call out sexism and bias.

Last year, at a major national health professional congress in Melbourne,  the entertainment at one of the evening social events included women dressed only in G-strings and tassels. This time, I said something.

At a dinner last year, where I was the only woman in a group of 5 peers, a male colleague made a sexually charged comment to a waitress. I called it out.

There are other things too, that I’ll talk about in subsequent posts, but you get the idea I hope.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not easy. Especially when the people being called out are my colleagues or more senior than me, or when I’m the only woman. My heart is in my mouth every time I voice my concerns. But I still do it. And I hope you will join me. Because if we say nothing, then nothing will change.

You see, I don’t want the next generation of academics – male and female alike – to feel that sexual harassment, discrimination on the basis of gender, objectification of women, and unconscious bias are acceptable in academia or elsewhere. Surely, if you have a mother, sister, female partner or daughter you would want them to have an equal opportunity to succeed, and to be treated respectfully by men.

So when you see it, say something. Call out sexism. It doesn’t belong in this millennium.

***I decided to post this two days earlier than intended, after reading the following post, which sends the same message ***