Challenging bias against women in science takes time

5 Sep 2014

Prof Paul Walton, head of the chemistry department at the University of York

Addressing biases about women in science is a marathon, not a sprint, an audience heard recently at University College Dublin (UCD).

Are you biased against women in science? Probably, according to Prof Paul Walton from the University of York, even if you don’t think you are. It’s a startling message he delivered recently at UCD, where he spoke about the experience of tackling the gender imbalance in science.

“I am passionately interested in making universities the best places to do research and deliver the best teaching,” says Walton. “It’s not (just) about helping women, it’s about being the best and keeping the best talent.”

Athena SWAN success

Walton has been deeply involved in creating a more inclusive work environment as head of York’s chemistry department, which in 2007 earned the first gold medal under the Athena SWAN initiative.

Athena SWAN recognises ‘commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research’, and Walton believes the approach of accrediting steps to a more inclusive work environment is on the money.

Yet he is also the first to admit he harbours an inherent bias that is at odds with the intended result.

“(Based on the results of tests) I have an implicit association of men with science and I can’t get rid of it, I am sorry to say I am biased,” he says. “But we are all prone to it, men as well as women. Once we came to terms with that in our department, people started to get on board more with changing the culture.”

Start with the data

One of Walton’s strongest messages is that we need look at the data when thinking about women in science rather than relying on anecdotes and assumptions.

“When it comes to gender equality, work from the evidence base, stop guessing,” he says. “People say there isn’t a problem with gender equality, and this is where the data become so important, to show that there is.”

When Walton’s department looked at the data from the UK, it revealed the ‘drop-off’ rate of women in higher academic posts and the pay gap were two useful indices of fairness (or lack of it).

The drop-off or ‘leaky pipeline’ for women in academia is a worrying pattern, according to Walton.

“If you move up the scale (in the UK) you find one woman in four to one in three for senior lecturers, and one in six for professorial appointments,” he notes. “And chemistry is lamentably bad – about one in 16 of UK chemistry professors are women and many UK departments have no female professors at all. This fall-away became for us an index we wanted to improve as a way to drive gender equality, it was a measure of cultural unfairness.”

Another measure hits squarely in the wallet – it’s the pay gap between men and women in academic science.

“The mean pay gap between men and women academics in UK universities is almost 14pc,” he says. “We see that it can take longer for women to get a promotion than their male colleagues and a gap starts to open up.”

Lessons from York

York’s chemistry department has been focused on changing the environment for a decade, and Walton says it’s a journey and cultural change that takes time. “It’s a mistake to try and fix this overnight with a couple of policies.”

So what tips can he offer based on the experience and evidence from York to date? Moving away from token appointments on committees is one.

“You are far better making sure the committee is made up of people who are committed to equality in the first place, that they are fair minded,” he says. “And open management practices – such as publishing minutes, transparency and accountability – start to remove gender inequality.”

If a person has to spend time away from the department – whether to have a child or look after another family member – an appointed advocate should protect their interests, he adds.

“If you have to be absent for a period of time, you cannot compete for resources like lab space, students and being on a research committee,” he explains. “So we appointed a person to compete on their behalf and in every instance where we did that … the absent person’s productivity and talent was safeguarded.”

Meanwhile, more flexible working arrangements in York saw not just women but men moving to part-time hours and maximising their output while bringing down the pay bill, according to Walton.

Group and university leaders have an important role, too, and need to recognise the inputs and ideas from women to ensure they are heard, he adds.

And while some of the interventions to drive behavioural change need a bit of finance behind them, many are free.

“If you are prepared to make it a totem of what you do, you will see a change in dynamic,” says Walton.

Take-home messages

The session, which was organised by the UCD Women in The Sciences committee and sponsored jointly by UCD College of Science and the Institute of Physics, also featured a talk from Dr Pete Jones, who spoke about how the brain’s thinking processes and how implicit biases can break through to behaviour.

For Dr Sheila McBreen, a lecturer in UCD’s School of Physics and one of the organisers of the day, the message about needing data stood out.

“In particular, data is required on the proportion of female scientists at all levels and in all disciplines across the universities,” she says. “The mean pay gap presented by Prof Walton in UK institutions of approximately 14pc is very disturbing. Similar data from the Irish higher education institutes must also be gathered and monitored closely.”  

She hopes the 30 or so people who attended will take the message back to their respective workplaces and “start to implement changes and encourage colleagues to take an interest in equality.”

Women Invent Tomorrow is Silicon Republic’s campaign to champion the role of women in science, technology, engineering and maths. It has been running since March 2013, and is kindly supported by Accenture Ireland, Intel, the Irish Research Council, ESB, Twitter, CoderDojo and Science Foundation Ireland.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication