Into the woodwork of science

Who decides what science is excellent? Who decides which research projects will be funded, or which researchers will be recruited? These are issues we have to look at closely if we want to promote gender equality in science.

Teresa Rees, Professor and Pro-Vice Chancellor at Cardiff University. (Photo: Mikael Mack Dahl)

This was the message from Teresa Rees, Professor and Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Cardiff, when she participated at the conference 'One Step Up – a Conference about Leadership for Equality' held in Oslo in January. In her lecture Gendered construction of scientific excellence Rees emphasized that it is necessary to move beyond achieving some sort of gender balance among staff, and to start looking at the role of gender in the construction of scientific excellence.

"This gets into the woodwork of things, into the organization of scientific institutions, and their processes," she said.

A male community

Teresa Rees has acted as an expert adviser for the European Commission on gender mainstreaming and as a UK Equal Opportunities Commissioner. She also was the rapporteur for the ETAN-report on women in science policy in the European Union. The ETAN-group gathered a lot of statistical information that showed clear and consistent patterns of gender imbalance in the European scientific community.

"I am amazed at how many prizes are given in the scientific community," Rees said in her lecture. "In the ETAN report, we analyzed the gender balance of the main international and national prize-giving committees throughout the world. You could count the number of women on them on about two hands. This is men giving men prizes, by large."

"And looking at the gender balance of the scientific committees that give prizes, value promotions and evaluate research projects, we see, in terms of who decides, that it is a very male community determining what is excellent," she added.

According to Rees, there is always a danger that members of committees select candidates in their own likeness, and that informal networks become channels for recruitment. So we need to look closely at the importance of these networks, and we must insist on transparent competency based appointment processes.

Equality and excellence

But how can we win support for equality policies? Rees’ answer is that promotion of equality must become an argument for the promotion of excellence:

"I think the trick is to link the promotion of equality to the promotion of excellence. We should focus on the issues of quality and excellence; the gendered organization of research is actually standing in the way of that. This is inhibiting us from achieving our core business. We need to persuade people, including the finance director and other people, that this is the way to achieve it. To achieve global competitiveness in research and development, it is our use of our human resources that is key."

We asked her after her lecture if there also can be a catch to this argumentation? Critics could say that the argument of justice for women is justification enough for the equality work. What if a university with a good women staff ratio doesn't produce more excellent research? Does that mean that the representation of women is less important?

"Justice for women is of course important," she says. "But this is about changing cultures and organizations so that both women and men feel comfortable in them. We have not done that. The focus should be on systems that allow excellent women, and men, to come through. At the moment many mediocre men are blocking the way for excellent women. If we did end up with mediocre women in place - that would be equality!," she argues.

The cost of inequality

Rees also thinks we should calculate the cost of not promoting equality. She reacts against universities that object to equality policies on the ground that it will cost them money.

"But what does it cost to re-recruit and train women who leave because of inadequate work/life balance policies, or because of bullying, sexism or lack of belief in fair transparent promotion systems", she asks, and argues that we should expose what the inequality is already costing us.

Rees adds that these are calculations that should be done at the institutional level.

Share the knowledge

The Scandinavian countries have achieved much in their equality work. This was also a point made by Rees in her lecture:

"I have to say that some of us in the rest of Europe dream of having 17 percent of our professors who are women, and we fantasize about having a Women and Science Committee like this, taking such innovative actions as it has."

But she also emphasized that the Scandinavian countries have a responsibility to the rest of the world, as a leading region in the field of women in science. And when asked what we can do to help promote equality in other countries, Rees focused on international cooperation.

"Disseminate the results of initiatives in Norway widely, preferably in English, and continue to be an active member of the Helsinki Group. Work through international professional associations, especially those in fields where women are under-represented."

Recommandations to Norway

At the end of this year The Committee for Women in Science in Norway is going to give its policy recommendations to the government. Rees has some suggestions of recommendations to the Committee.

"These would include a gendered wage audit in universities, to ensure that male and female academics are paid the same. It is also important to ensure that professorships are evenly distributed across male and female dominated subject areas," she says.

"You must also provide childcare for scholars who wish to spend time abroad, and support research on gender in universities."

In her lecture Rees spoke of sponsoring research on the 'underbelly of the organization of science.' She tells us this includes gender audits on scientific committees and understanding the micro processes of appointments, promotions and grant awarding in the academia.

She also thinks we must look at the significance of networks and how they are gendered, and study gendering in teaching and the curriculum.

Only women?

Diversity has become an important word when recruitment is being discussed both in public and private sector. At the University of Cardiff, where Rees is Pro-Vice Chancellor, Department Heads report on what they will do to promote equality and diversity in their strategic plans.

"People seem more comfortable with gender equality if we link it to the other equality dimensions," she says.

In Norway we have almost exclusively focused on women in science. But is this a too narrow approach to equality issues in science, we ask Rees. Should we focus more on ethnic minorities or people that are discriminated for other reasons?

"There is a danger of complacency, in thinking the women question has been solved, so we need to continue to focus on gender," she answers.

"But it is important to promote diversity more generally too, for the same arguments of equity and innovation. Sometimes it is more expedient to make a case based just on women, sometimes it is better on the more general diversity ticket."

Teresa Rees

Teresa Rees, Professor and Pro-Vice Chancellor at Cardiff University, participated at the conference “One Step Up – a Conference about Leadership for Equality” held in Oslo in January.

Read her lecture 'Gendered construction of scientific excellence' here: