Go back

Anglican lessons

What the struggle for women bishops means for researcher equality

There has been much anger following the Church of England’s failed attempts at bringing its employment rules in line with equality laws. But before we get too holier-than-thou, it is worth remembering that other institutions (in the broadest sense) continue to amble along the path to genuine equality, and they include some in the research world.

The length of the road ahead is highlighted in the latest report on the subject, published by the Council of Canadian Academies on 23 November. There is a graph in Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The gender dimension, which is striking. It shows that in 2009 there were more women studying at undergraduate level across the EU27, Canada and the United States than men. At the PhD level, the numbers are still broadly equal. But look at full professors and the ratio becomes 80:20 in favour of men.

The report says improvement is discernible, but concludes that time alone will not balance the proportion of men and women at academia’s highest levels. Sadly, none of its recommendations will come as a surprise.

The report says change is needed so the criteria for promotion and tenure decisions do not work against women who choose to have families. It says that routes to career progression should be transparent. Tellingly, last week the journal Nature promised it would do more to recruit more women authors and reviewers subconsciously acknowledging that membership of this closed network is pivotal to career progression for scientists.

The report also singles out the UK’s hugely successful Athena Swan charter for praise. Since its foundation in 2005, the charter has been awarded to 124 departments and institutions. But in its seven years not one institution—not even the 10 founders—have achieved “gold” status.

In the end, the report’s bigger message is that nudge-type approaches have their limits. They can certainly lead to modest change but they also risk entrenching a tick-box mentality. Overall, the pace of change is glacially slow and it is slow because those (mostly men) who are senior academics or who sit at the top of organisations do not see acceleration towards greater equality as a priority.

This is why equality campaigners need to study closely what will happen in the church over the weeks and months to come. After four decades of nudge, some reformers now believe the only way to bring in women bishops is to involve parliament and ask MPs or the government to intervene. It may not happen and it is not without its risks, but it has become a necessary threat to force change. Parliament can intervene because the church answers to it, because the church is in receipt of public funds and its members sit in the House of Lords.

We can think of more than a few universities and learned societies, which share some or all of the above characteristics. Campaigners should encourage MPs to point their spotlight beyond the Church of England and on to the lack of equality in the cathedrals of the research world, too.