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In my opinion

Pitfalls in the push for professional parity

Women shouldn’t feel obligated to take up administrative roles to mitigate past gender biases – we are doing so already, in whatever academic positions we already hold.


I attended a conference recently and, at the end of a panel discussion, one of my graduate students, Chantal Maclean, put up her hand and asked: “Why aren’t there any women on this panel?” Both of us found the discussion that followed to be highly telling.

First, both organizers and panel members fell over themselves to justify the panel. Panel members apologized, said they recognized they might have a gender bias they weren’t aware of, that there is a need for women in science, and assured us that they knew lots of women who were smarter than they were. Then the organizers made sure we all knew that they had, in fact, invited lots of women to be on the panel, but the women had all declined, citing conflicting professional responsibilities, thus leaving a panel of experts made up entirely of men.

Pulled in too many directions

This remark rang a bell for me. I think this experience reflects an ongoing threat faced by female researchers – and, surely, many members of minority communities – that I haven’t seen discussed elsewhere: that in academia’s haste to correct the gender (and other) imbalances in senior administrative roles, committees and similar forums, we are carving away the time women need to develop exceptional research portfolios and to become, and be recognized as, leaders in their academic fields. The women invited to participate in the panel were all pulled in too many professional directions at once to attend; the men were not.

When I first accepted a position as an assistant professor, I was warned by a more senior colleague: “They’ll try to get you on as many committees as possible because you’re a woman. Learn to say no.”

As an associate professor, I was frequently encouraged to apply for associate dean positions, which I considered premature given my relatively junior position. I declined these administrative opportunities because I wanted to focus on my research program, and I had seen other scientists’ research productivity plummet after taking on senior administrative positions.

But, at the time, I wondered how often efforts to resolve gender biases in administration actually contributed to gender biases in research. Perhaps the rapid shift of women into administrative positions in academia explains some of the gender bias in academic publications and senior authorship rates (e.g., Sugimoto et al. in Nature, 2013).

I also wondered whether this might, in part, explain why I was the first woman to be promoted to full professor since the establishment of my faculty about 15 years previously. Indeed, I started thinking about writing this article five or six years ago … but I was too busy working on my research. Chantal’s question prompted me to speak up now.

I find this problem particularly ironic as promoting women to senior roles is often recommended as a solution to the “local and historical forces that subtly contribute to the systemic inequalities that hinder women’s access to and progress in science” (ibid.). Which strategy might result more quickly in gender equity: promoting more women to decision-making roles, so that senior women can facilitate more support for major grant applications and international collaborations by female scientists; or letting those women take the time they need to first build up a comprehensive and groundbreaking research program of their own, to be followed by administration in their more senior years, as was historically the pattern when academia was predominately a male occupation?

Don’t feel obligated

I’m not sure which approach would have a more rapid impact on gender bias, but I suspect that it’s going to take time either way. And I think women need to be honest with themselves, and their supervisors, about what role will give them the most satisfaction. Women shouldn’t feel obligated to take up administrative roles to mitigate past gender biases – we are doing so already, in whatever academic positions we already hold.

The next generation of scholars have their own ideas on gender parity and equality. Chantal says, “As a young, female scientist, I am standing on the shoulders of all those who came before me and pioneered the way for women in academics. There is still work to do and it is the responsibility of my generation to ask tough questions and create the dialogue necessary to move forward.” Chantal is a fan of asking tough questions, and I know she’ll be one of the driving forces for change.

Nicola Koper is a professor of conservation biology at the University of Manitoba. She lives in Winnipeg with her husband, who does most of the cooking, and her daughter, who does not want to be a biologist when she grows up. Chantal Maclean is a masters of natural resources management student at U of M.

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  1. Sarah / May 30, 2018 at 19:57

    Thank you for writing this, as it needs to be said. As a relatively newly promoted Associate Professor I am certain that a) I have said “no” more than my junior male colleagues because I have simply been asked more often, and b) that will continue. Although there is nothing wrong with asking per say, the askers need to be aware of this demand from many sources (departments, university committees, disciplinary committees and societies, outreach, etc, etc). I’ve had instances where I’ve been told I don’t pull my weight despite clearly on paper doing more service than my colleagues and I suspect that perception comes from the frequency those requesters hear “no” from me not realizing they are asking more often.
    Ultimately, some of us will step away from these demands and focus on being inspirational stars in research (and teaching!). Others of us will decide our skills and energy are best applied in administration. A few will even find the boundless energy required to accomplish both. All will inspire and facilitate change by being there.