Taking action against inequality in academia

In the past couple of weeks I have been at two events celebrating and promoting the careers of women academics. For International Women’s Day (8 March) the School of Humanities at the University of Hertfordshire had a series of talks highlighting women researching women’s issues, a networking lunch and a workshop where we discussed the things we felt were holding us back and what we could do about them. On 13 March I attended ‘London’s Women Historians: a celebration and a conversation’. The event was organised by Laura Carter and Alana Harris from Kings College London and has been storyfied here: https://storify.com/ihr_history/london-s-women-historians. This was an amazing and inspirational event, the room was packed and the conversation was energising.


Indeed, these were both fabulous events and I felt that, in many ways, both had achieved much. They raised awareness of our research and our shared concerns, they built new connections and networks and they allowed us to celebrate the achievements and contributions of intelligent, assertive women. The IHR event reminded me very powerfully how much my discipline – economic history – owes to pioneering women.

But there was also a depressing element to our discussions. We were there, after all, in in part because equality is still a long way off. We all know the stats for academia so I won’trepeat them here (if you want some research, the RHS report is a good place to start: http://5hm1h4aktue2uejbs1hsqt31.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/RHSGenderEqualityReport-Jan-15.pdf) Sexism is rife in our working environments and it places us regularly in uncomfortable, challenging and frustrating situations. I feel this particularly because I used to work in City dealing rooms in the 80s and 90s and I’m sorry to say that, in many ways, I find academia a much more difficult environment to negotiate… although I am grateful that all the dick-waving in universities is metaphorical! Why is it that environments full of intelligent, interesting, politically-aware people are still such bastions of inequality?

I was also left with a feeling of disquiet because the question ‘what can we do about this’ came up many times and we struggled to find answers. As seems typical in academia, we left the meetings having discussed agendas for change, we all knew that things must change, we all knew what we would like to see change but we didn’t quite get to the question of how to implement change.

So here I offer my action points for change. They are, in many ways, personal, some are things that I find very easy to do and some I’m still working on. It’s also not an exhaustive list. I invite you to challenge, modify and please add to the list in the comments or to me directly via Twitter or email.

Action points for change:

  1. It’s ok to have a strong voice and to use it. Not everyone will like it when we do but we should not let that stop us from speaking up and speaking out with no apologies and no excuses. We have a right to be in meetings, on panels, influencing policy, expressing our opinions and voicing our protests. Our greatest struggle still is surely the battle to be heard. Action point: those who are confident should speak up all the time and let’s all remember we have an obligation to ensure our female colleagues are heard. And a second action point: never ever start your intervention with an apology.
  2. We need to take credit for what we do. Don’t wait around for your effort, ingenuity, innovativeness and creativity to be noticed. Action point: say ‘it was me, I did this and I want it acknowledged’. And action point: let’s do this for all our female colleagues and students until they feel confident enough to do it for themselves.
  3. Far too many of our initiatives see us talking amongst ourselves and to other women. I’ll confess to loving the company of my female colleagues and I am grateful that I know so many brilliant and inspiring women. As Chair of the Economic History Society’s Women Committee I am also keenly aware of the value of those times when we discuss amongst ourselves. But we need to discuss with our male colleagues too. Action point: let’s invite more men to our meetings and insist they come and they listen. They need to hear how hard it is to find a voice when you’re a young woman, how difficult it is to convince yourself of your value in a profession dominated by white men, how ingrained in most women is the need to accommodate and not make a fuss and how exhausting it is to have to ask every damn day for the things that our middle-aged white male colleagues take for granted: the right to speak up, the right to be assertive, the right to be acknowledged for our work, the right to be the first person invited onto panels and not the after-thought or the ‘token woman’ invited to provide gender balance.
  4. We need to be more strategic. During our workshop for IWD at Hertfordshire we discovered we had one thing in common: we too often put the needs of others first. This usually meant that our research and especially our writing suffered. Action point: without acting selfishly and while remembering that academia is a community that thrives on good will, let’s find time every day to put ourselves first. And we need to do this every day, without guilt, and we need to tell each other we do it and keep encouraging each other to do the same.
  5. The systems that operate in our institutions often are not transparent and sometimes entrench gender inequality. Promotion processes and the allocation of those prestigious service roles, in particular, seem to be shrouded in mystery and, for various reasons, we are reluctant to challenge or even to ask about these things. Do you know what you need to do to get the next promotion? Action point: let’s lobby for clear, transparent, written procedures and insist that they are adhered to. And action point: let’s all commit to finding out, and do it now not in a few weeks or maybe at the next appraisal, what we need to do to get promoted.
  6. Let’s use the Athena Swan process more actively. History at Kings have provided a model for real change through Athena Swan and I’m sure Laura Carter and Alana Harris would be happy to talk about what they have done. They have proved that Athena Swan does not have to be a box-ticking exercise. It can be used to ask questions about privilege and prejudice: from who gets the PhD students and who gets the best offices to who gets the shittiest jobs and the most anti-social teaching hours. And Athena Swan can spark change….if there’s the will. Action point: when we get the chance, let’s use Athena Swan to generate change and insist that those changes are supported by our institutions.
  7. Let’s emulate one of Kings Athena Swan action points and get more women on to our curriculums in whatever way we can. And let’s insist that our male colleagues do this too. Action point: as a start, let’s all commit to reviewing our reading lists and putting more women on them. Second action point: let’s ensure that our students know we have done this.
  8. Some, not all but enough, of our male colleagues do not respect our intellect or our contributions. Action point: let’s not do that to each other. Let’s commit to offering opportunities to our female colleagues and supporting and promoting their careers. The Economic History Society’s Women’s Committee might be one model of how to make a difference: http://www.ehs.org.uk/the-society/womens-committee/index.html I would be happy to talk to anyone who’s interested about what we do.
  9. We know the research on unconscious bias, we know that we are disadvantaged by measures of student satisfaction, the perception that we are better at pastoral care and teaching than research and the notion that when we work in collaboration our contributions are less than those of our male collaborators. Action point: let’s put the research that proves those biases on every agenda we can. And a second action point: let’s lobby every institution to provide unconscious bias training and require all colleagues to attend.
  10. We also know that unconscious bias is not just a problem for men, women are just as likely to underrate other women. Action point: before every short-listing, interview panel, appraisal meeting and promotion panel, we should review our unconscious bias training. We should do that actively and, if we’re on a panel we should do that as a group. We should reflect on what our biases are and how they might affect our perceptions of the people with whom we will be interacting.
  11. This one is for all our male colleagues and although it is my final point it is by no means the least important. I know many men are feminists in that they agree wholeheartedly that women and men are equal and should be treated as such. Action point: if you do believe that then please stand up and say so, say it often and say it loud enough for everyone to hear!
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2 Responses to Taking action against inequality in academia

  1. Pingback: Implicit or unconscious bias in universities | The Long Run

  2. Pingback: Implicit or unconscious bias in universities – Economic History Society

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