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Forget men not

Men have been shirking their responsibility to talk about sexism in academia. Vice-chancellors have the power to change that, argues Adam Smith.

There are many useful conversations going on about how to improve the position of women in research and science jobs. But they rarely involve men.

It’s difficult to get people to speak on the record about sexist behaviour in academia. The men I’ve spoken to say the issue is real, but that it is too sensitive to confront. A male researcher never knows how a colleague will take it if he privately draws attention to a sexist remark. Those bold enough to do so need to be prepared to be laughed at, argued with, or told that they’re fighting someone else’s battle.

I’m not talking here about overt and malicious discrimination or harassment, but rather the subtle, often unconscious biases that we all carry. Plenty of studies have shown, for example, that men interrupt women more than they interrupt other men. And in many disciplines, men receive a disproportionate share of citations. One council member of a research council says that she feels her views are sometimes marginalised because she is a woman. But pointing this out, she says, would lead to further ostracism.

The best way to confront this bias is for men to start talking about it—to have a public debate in the same way that women have. Some male researchers understandably feel that this is not their place. But until they start to question their own behaviour, and to acknowledge their unconscious bias, actions against sexism will remain superficial.

It’s not good enough to get on with your research and refrain from denigrating your female colleagues. Getting informed about gender equality in the workplace, and avoiding all-male panel discussions, are necessary but insufficient steps. Men are not responsible for their sexist colleagues, but it’s easier for them to challenge them than it is for women, many of whom fear they’ll be dismissed and marginalised for speaking out. 

Men themselves have something to gain from such a debate, and from a change in the culture of science. Gender stereotypes keep researchers of both sexes at work late, away from their children, and pressure them into certain types of behaviour. Many men quit science to work fewer hours under more reasonable pressures.

Fathers’ rights are improving, with shared paternity leave available from this month, but that’s no consolation for a researcher whose boss makes him feel like a slacker for taking legally permitted leave. Law change is one thing, but a career break to care for a child or parent is still culturally more acceptable for women than for men. It should not be the case that only certain types of men can succeed in science.

We can only reduce gender bias if men open up and talk about it with compassion and understanding. This will be awkward: men who join in with such conversations will find themselves saying sexist things inadvertently, but sometimes the path to enlightenment passes through embarrassment. Talking about gender will inevitably mean recognising discrimination based on race, sexuality and so on—and everyone will have to admit that they don’t have all the answers.

To make sure we’ve got something to talk about, we need to collect some evidence. Recruitment and promotion panels should include an observer to note how the panellists talk about the candidates and how this differs between the genders—how much airtime is given to different candidates, and the balance of positive and negative comments.

The method has already been on trial in the University of York’s chemistry department, where the evidence showed that women were treated unfairly. One academic says it changed how he thought about recruitment and how people can unwittingly make biased assumptions. Such evidence, which shines a light on unconscious bias, cannot fail to move the scientifically minded.

Action on hiring panels should be led by vice-chancellors, around 85 per cent of whom are men. Launching an evidence-gathering drive, encouraging departments to follow York’s lead, and talking publicly about their own unconscious bias would combine leadership, transparency and self-criticism in the best way.

The aim should not be just to generate another policy document about equal treatment, but to get individuals to think about and change their behaviour. Institutional promises to enact fair policies will remain incomplete until senior staff, especially men, talk openly about their biases.

Focusing on men is a way to shift the stagnating debate about gender equality in academia. Sexism gives the lie to academia’s meritocratic principles. As long as it persists, everyone loses.

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This article also appeared in Research Fortnight