Women in Science: Careers and Policy Leadership session on gender at ESOF 2018 Toulouse

A gender scholar’s visit to ESOF 2018: she came, she saw, she ranted

Disclaimer: The article below represents the views of the author.

I had the pleasure of representing the EFFORTI project (Evaluation Framework for Gender Equality in Research and Innovation) at this year’s European Science Open Forum (ESOF) which was held in Toulouse, France, from Monday 9 to Saturday 14 of July. My primary responsibility as representative was to hang around the EFFORTI poster and engage with guests at the poster exhibition, but I also took the opportunity to participate in panels on gender issues.

During the conference, no less than eight sessions and panels were held on issues of gender in research and education. I took part in most of these sessions, but not all of them. Although I applaud the organisers of ESOF for paying so much attention to gender issues, I was quickly frustrated with the manner in which the topic was discussed and, perhaps in particular, the things that in most cases remained absent from the discussions. I have summarised my points of critique which I discuss below based on the following three questions:

  1. Can we please stop talking about women’s lack of confidence?!
  2. Where are discussions of men and masculinities in all of this?
  3. Where are all the gender in organisation/gender in higher education scholars?

Can we please stop talking about women’s lack of confidence?!

Many of the gender initiatives, which panellists described during the sessions of the conference, were directed at women and based on the assumption that women suffer from a supposed lack of confidence that should be rectified. Audiences seemed to be in general agreement that this lack of confidence is the central explanation for – and means of changing – the absence of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields.

In one session on, Laurent Chicoineau from Quai des Savoirs, a Toulouse science museum, described how the museum has held e.g. a festival for women scientists which had attracted large female audiences, as well as a campaign and workshop series for women entrepreneurs called “Be a boss”. Aleksandra Makowska from L’Oréal Research and Innovation explained the L’Oréal Foundation’s efforts to, for example, honour and promote excellent female researchers through scholarships and awards. Such activities are intended to empower women and to increase their levels of confidence to pursue careers in science.

Although I am a fervent advocate for initiatives such as the above directed specifically at women who are, after all, the group we want to boost, I find this continued reiteration of women’s assumed lack of confidence problematic. Undeniably, there are gender differences in behaviours between women and men in many respects, such as job application and salary negotiations. However, in my view, this behaviour difference stems from girls being socialised to not take up space, to not disagree, to not be angry, to not cause trouble, to not be silly, to not make mistakes, to not pose demands, etc. As a result, what gender activities should then do, instead of ‘installing confidence’, is to unlearn stereotypical feminine behaviours which we are taught through our upbringing. My point is not that women should adopt stereotypically masculine behaviours instead, such as aggressiveness which is also problematic. Rather, we need to recognise women’s disagreement, anger etc. as legitimate human emotions. I find that there is a space in-between this socialised holding-back and outright aggression, in which women – and men – can stand firm on their beliefs and rights, and still demonstrate just plain good, polite behaviours.

Words matter! And the central difference between the above mentioned conceptualisations (women’s lack of confidence versus unlearning socialised behaviours) is that assuming a dispositional lack of confidence attributes essential, gendered traits to women. We know that attributing an inherent lack of confidence to women is often used to promote particular types of gender interventions (‘Mentoring schemes will improve women’s confidence!’) or to discourage intervention at all (‘This is just the way women are, so why should we try to change it?’). Although mentoring schemes and career coaching for women may undoubtedly benefit the individual, such initiatives place the responsibility for ensuring gender parity on women themselves (who should ‘man up’ and ‘lean in’) while generally denying the existence of covert as well as overt discrimination which results in the attrition of women in research.

Indeed, I had the sensation that addressing the exclusion of women, and the dynamics and processes which contribute hereto, was unwelcome at ESOF. Therefore, I saluted those panellist who spoke up. For instance, Sirpa Salenius, senior lecturer at the University of Eastern Finland, should be justly commended for listing societal and organisational barriers to women’s career progression, such as men’s short paternity leaves and the gender pay gap. Also, Marcela Linkóva from the Czech Academy of Sciences brought up growing anti-feminism, sexism, sexual harassment and increasing backlash against gender research. The fact that the credibility and value of gender research is often questioned or out-right discarded significantly inhibits the uptake of the knowledge which is essential to creating change.

In all fairness, there were examples of projects that took more progressive approaches to gender research and initiatives. For example, Sheena Laursen from the Experimentarium (a Danish science museum for kids), described how the museum designs its exhibitions on performative understandings of gender to not only consider gendered behavioural differences among its young visitors but also, for instance, personality traits such as extroversion versus introversion. This way, they ensure maximum engagement from girls as much as boys.

I also found professor, from Uppsala University in Sweden, Gabriele Griffin’s presentation of the work of the Nordwit project extremely interesting. She managed to make me rethink some of my ‘taken-for-granteds’. For instance, she questioned our default conception of ‘career’, which typically presupposes a linear ‘on, up or out’ progression. Maybe a career can be something else? Zig zag or circular? And what are the consequences if gender equality activities are based on linear conceptions of careers? Might this in fact contribute to discouraging some women, who feel (if this version of a ‘career’ is the only option) that they will not be able to proceed? And could academia potentially have retained that talent, if there was in fact room for divergent career paths?

Griffin also reminded us, that traditional academic organising is not naturally or universally given. Hierarchical, departmental structures have been invented at some point and have, over time, become the taken for granted way that universities should organise. In Norwit’s case work, on the relatively new and emergent field of digital humanities, they often operate in alternatives to a hierarchical departmental structures such as networks, centres, or large multi-year projects. This is facilitated in particular by multidisciplinarity. It attracts women with non-conventional career paths, for instance having studied two or more disciplines. In this field, job changes can occur across disciplines, types of institutions or between sectors. Research shows further that women are attracted to non-traditional, horizontally structured organisations. And women to a larger extent progress to leadership positions in non-traditional academic settings. Such knowledge may prove valuable in attempts to convince academic decision-makers to create the kinds of fundamental organisational changes which will foster equality.

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Where are discussions of men and masculinities in all of this?

At ESOF, gender largely still equalled women, which I found disappointing. It makes sense that since the existence of systemic discrimination is largely rejected (cf. above), the other side of the coin, male privilege, remains unaddressed. But maybe it is about time we start talking about masculinities and role of men in changing gender structures?

In addition to women’s assumed lack of confidence, another recurring topic was work-life balance. At various sessions, best practice family friendly policies were discussed, flexible working arrangements, home offices and teleworking, ensuring on-campus day care etc. However, such initiatives were mainly intended to enable women to balance work and family, which of course presupposes that home and family remains the main responsibility of women which I find simply unambitious in this supposedly progressively equal day and age.

In particular, one panellist’s reasoning ignited my frustration. She stated that it is the (quote) ‘particular responsibility of women to install confidence in their daughters and push them towards STEM fields’. At this point, I could not keep quiet any longer and commented something along the lines of the following:

Where are masculinities in all of this? How about not only treating little girls counter-stereotypically but also teaching boys accountability, getting rid of ‘boys will be boys’ mentality, allowing boys stereotypically ‘feminine’ traits, allowing them feelings, caring play, creativity and artistic expression, teaching them to respects women’s no and to value women’s input not for being ‘uniquely feminine’ but for being human[1]. And in your [the panellists’] accounts, this issue is reduced to being only about ensuring balance between kids and careers for women? [at this point I was not only shakingly nervous, but also getting rather agitated] And I know in this forum, I might be unpopular for saying this, but WHAT ABOUT STRUCTURAL/CULTURAL SEXISM, MISOGYNY, SEXUAL HARASSMENT?

My comment was followed by applause, and immediately after the session I was approached by several listeners who thanked me for the courage to be the one to voice the divergent opinion.

Post-#metoo, I would have expected that senior academics’ abuse of power and sexual misconduct would have been an inevitable topic, but no. In fact, one senior and very successful female researcher, on a panel, described how she had only met men during her career, who had supported and helped her to progress in both research and leadership. Her story is of course encouraging, however, it makes me wonder: How are those women who are not so fortunate as to avoid sexism, misogyny and harassment during a lifetime supposed to learn from her experience? I am not trying to, by every means, conjure perpetrators of such crimes, and thankfully I have also met male champions of gender equality who have helped me on my way. Nevertheless, what #metoo have unveiled more than anything is, that sexual harassment and abuse occurs everywhere, in all organisations, and in particular in those fields of work characterised by insecure employment such as the creative fields and research. Working through one short-term contract to the next increases the individual’s dependency on decision-makers who have the power to prolong employment or re-hire. This dependency reduces the likelihood that victims will raise their voices on abuse.

I am aware that the above points may be read as an attack on ‘the villainous men, who are the culprits of harassment’. Allow me to make my critique clear: Due to its history of male domination, academia is built on male norms. Still today, particular forms of masculinity are dominant. Those types of masculinity, which champion assertiveness, competitiveness, recognition, self-fulfilment, status, etc. enable abusive behaviours. Those individuals who perform this hegemonic form of masculinity, are also, I believe, the people who are likely to engage in harassment and misconduct. This is exactly why, we need to discuss masculinities. Allowing the hegemony of assertive behaviours to continue marginalises not only women but also men who perform masculinities in different ways. And please let me stress that femininities are not tied to female bodies, just like masculinities are not tied to male bodies. However, when men and women engage in counter-stereotypical behaviours they risk social sanctions.

Before you cry #notallmen, please let me repeat that I know that there are good people out there. One speaker described how a male colleague had levelled a sexist remark at her, which another colleague had pointed out to him. This made the man realise his supposedly unintended offense, which he later called the speaker and apologised for. The story just proves to me the necessity of talking about these issues. If researchers are indeed so accustomed to the masculine culture of the academic institution that sexism thrives under the surface, we need to make it conscious. Hopefully, having realised his implicit bias, the man of the story turned from complicit to ally and equality champion.

Champions were also present at ESOF. Brian Cahill, former chair of the Marie Curie Alumni Association, discussed barriers to international mobility which in particular female early career researchers face. He suggested the blog hertourage.com as positive inspiration for couples and their families to see that it is possible for male spouses to be the ‘dependents’ of female researchers on research stays abroad. He also agitated for conferences to offer child care services, which would enable more young scholars (women and men) with small kids to participate. Gordon Dalton from Cork University College in Ireland explained how he had been involved in the authoring of a booklet called ‘Fathers at work’ which focusses specifically on facilitating the work-balance of men by listing, for example, human resource policies, available leave options, and work-family initiatives. Finally, one female speaker also advocated for legally earmarked paternity leave stating ‘It’s not too much to ask!’.

Where are all the gender in organisation/gender in higher education scholars?

In several sessions, I was left baffled by the choice of panellists. Most panellists were gender equality policy-makers practitioners in various capacities, many were researchers, mostly from the natural sciences, and some were researchers involved in European projects with a gender dimension, such as RRING and LIBRA. Nevertheless, in several cases, the capacity in which speakers were invited was not introduced. Consequently, it appeared as if, at ESOF, gender was a topic which anybody has the qualification to talk about, simply from opinions and personal experiences. Some speakers expressed views which I found rather problematic and, in some cases, counterproductive to the purpose of discussing gender issues to promote equality – which I believe that all speakers were there to promote. For instance, when one speaker attributed her academic career success to, among other things, having been raised with two brothers, I was left to wonder whether this means that for those of us who ‘unfortunately’ only have a sister are doomed? Although, I congratulate this woman on her achievements which I am not in any way trying to slight, her story reproduces the devaluation of assumed ‘feminine’ traits and behaviours and the assumption that women should adapt to male conventions. Such reasoning is simply not reflecting of where the research fields of gender in organisations, gender in academia, gender and labour markets are today.

I wonder: Where were these scholars in the gender panels of ESOF? One possible answer to this question could be that, in general, ESOF is noticeably skewed towards STEM research. This way, the absence of gender and organisation experts on panels, may simply reflect the fact that the social sciences and the humanities were not represent at the conference to any large extent. Also, at ESOF, it would appear that gender inequality is a problem which only concerns the natural and technical sciences which, in combination with the fact that ‘gender is a topic which one is qualified to discuss based on personal views and experiences’ (cf. above), results in many STEM panellist.

I find it surprising that the organisers of ESOF, who have approved panel proposals, have not considered the possibility of inviting gender and organisation scholars. Within Europe, quite a few gender equality in education, research, academia etc. research projects are going on right now (e.g. GenPort, GENERA, GEDII Project etc.), many of which are funded through the European Commission’s Framework Programmes or Horizon2020. Furthermore, we are a community of quite a few researchers carrying out these projects. Why did, seemingly, no-one consider bringing in some of this expertise?

Moreover, improving women’s representation among researchers and university leadership is not the only gender issue promoted by the European Commission. The integration of gender and sex analysis into research content was discussed in a session labelled ‘How has gender changed the fabric of science?’. I found the presentation by Charlotte Brives and Magali Della Sudda from the Emile Durkheim Center, University of Bordeaux, really interesting. They critiqued how, in medical research, clinical trials are carried out on male animals (because females are too ‘hormonal’) and the results are then unreflexively extrapolated to female animals – except for research on reproductive conditions which is (surprise!) a ‘women’s area’. Nevertheless, I was surprised that feminist methodologies were not discussed in this session. I would argue that it is indeed feminist methodologies that have had the most significant impact on ‘the fabric of science’ by questioning positivism and by introducing the subject of research into the research process. The importance of discussing alternative methodologies such as feminism was, in my view, only proven when the last speaker of this session claimed that math is not biased. However, as was noted by a listener in the audience, his view presupposes the belief that objectivity is possible, which is exactly one of feminist methodologies’ central complaints. Following feminist research approaches, you cannot take the subject out of research which implies that the variables chosen by the researcher will always reflect the biases of that individual, which makes also math biased.

Concluding remarks

As I also stated in the introduction to this entry, I did not manage to participate in all of the sessions at the ESOF conference that were dedicated to issues of gender in education and research. As a result, my overall impression of how these topics were addressed might have been different, if I had found the sessions that I missed more in line with current approaches and views of the gender and organisation scholarship. In hindsight, I am also wondering whether my disappointment with the ways in which gender was discussed, spurred by the initial sessions which I joined, may have biased my impressions of the subsequent ones thinking ‘Here we go again!’. Of course, I cannot rule this out.

Furthermore, in relation to the ‘missing’ gender and organisation scholars on the panels, I have to disclaim that I do not know how panellists were selected. Perhaps gender experts were in fact invited but unable to attend? I cannot know. I suppose that panellists were selected by the people who submitted session proposals to the conference organisers. And perhaps the organisers did not pay much attention to details about the panellists proposed, such as research area. On the other hand, I did hear that the ESOF organising committee had in several cases conditioned proposal acceptance on a change in the gender distribution of panels, which points to quite a high degree of attention to details about panellist. Nevertheless, I think, I am still inclined to attribute the lack of gender and organisation experts on panels, to ESOF’s overall tendency to favour the natural and technical sciences.

Also, I want to mention ‘intersectionality’. The concept refers to how individual experiences of oppression are shaped by multiple, intersecting identity categories, so that discrimination of e.g. women of colour is determined not only by their gender, but by their ethnicity (and sexuality, age, (dis)ability, etc.) as well. This way, intersectionality questions the universal category of ‘women’ as it, in the history of feminist activism and scholarship, has often only referred to Western, white women. I think, the word was perhaps mentioned once during the five days of ESOF. Although I did find that diversity in terms of geographical origin and ethnicity among panellists was quite good, panellists generally spoke about ‘women’, which is problematic. For example, Marcela Linkóva emphasised that the challenges facing Eastern-European women in research differ markedly from those of Western-European.

I am aware that I myself, in this text, talk about ‘women’ but it is not done unreflexively. As is hopefully evident from all of the above, I found the manner in which gender was discussed at ESOF rather out-of-date. Introducing ethnicity (or other identity dimensions) to the gender equation would have, I suspect, set the progressiveness of discussions back even further because thinking in terms intersectionality increases complexity of the issue even further. The same goes for LGBTQ+ issues which were not mentioned at ESOF at all. The lack of intersectional perspectives on gender discussions at ESOF could be a blog entry on its own but, for now, I will leave that for someone else to write.

On a final note, I would like to emphasise how positive it is, that gender is on the agenda in a prominent arena such as ESOF. Also, ESOF proved to me that many gender activities and projects are realised all over Europe, which is of course fantastic! However, boiling down gender equality to raising women’s lack of confidence and ensuring work-life balance for women is problematic and unfortunately not very helpful. Do not get me wrong, it would be wonderful if gender equality could be solved by addressing these two dimensions. However, inequality is so much more complex than this. As a result, interventions have to be equally complex. This assumption constitutes the foundation of the EFFORTI project. In our view, improving gender equality requires changing cultures, structures and implicit assumptions. To capture such changes, advanced, multi-level, holistic evaluation methodologies are required, which we, with the EFFORTI Evaluation Framework, aim to provide.

[1] https://xyonline.net/content/raising-feminist-sons-xy-collection

Featured image caption: “Women in Science: Careers and Policy Leadership” session at ESOF 2018 Toulouse. Place : Pierre Baudis Congress Centre – Cassiopée. Speakers from left: Seema KUMAR – Johnson and Johnson, Suzanne DE CHEVEIGNE – CNRS, Miyoko O. WANTABE – Center for Science Communication, Judit SANDOR – Central European University, Hungary, Theresa PATTERY – Johnson & Johnson Global Public Health, Anne CAMBON-THOMSEN – CNRS & Université fédérale Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées

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Ea Høg Utoft
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