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The Black Hole

Men as allies – a panel discussion shares ideas for gender equality

Simple, rather than drastic, changes can go a long way to improving equality.


Last month, I took part in a panel discussion organized by the Cambridge Association for Women and Science in Engineering (CamAWiSE) entitled “Men as Allies: Approaching Equality Together” which was put together to discuss how to change the STEMM workplace culture to be more inclusive and diverse. My contribution was fairly limited to relaying my experience as a male scientific group leader who has taken two significant periods of parental leave and so it was easy to feel woefully under-qualified sharing a stage with a leading researcher in gender equality (Dr. Jill Armstrong) and Professor Dame Athene Donald who alongside an eminent research career has fought long and hard for gender equality (and was Cambridge University’s first gender equality champion). This resulted in me doing a lot of listening and note-taking as ideas and stories emerged from both panellists and audience questioners, the key points of which I summarize below:

Meetings are important – run them properly

I remember quite distinctly in my graduate training coming to the realization (slowly, I know!) that people thought, learned and contributed “differently” rather than quicker/slower or better/worse. Following this, I’ve tried to run meetings and projects in ways that catered to more personality types. Whereas I think best in conversation and generally enjoy working ideas out with people, others like to do the deep thinking before or after a meeting and their contributions come in a different format. Sending an agenda around early does very little for me, but it means the world to others. Similarly, having follow-up opportunities are often critical to catching the perspective of others.

Here, panellist Keith Turner suggested that Parliament could be a nice model to follow (in principal, not in practice!). There is allotted time for arguments and counter-arguments, different voices are heard reasonably equally, the structure of the meeting is very clear, and the meeting is chaired by a Speaker with substantial power. I sat wondering what would happen if a university were to send in an impartial observer to faculty meetings in different departments – how effective are meeting chairs at partitioning time? Are all voices heard? Would the faculty feel that the meeting ran differently under evaluation than normally? Do meeting chairs need (better) training? One panellist suggested that simply stating “we will run this meeting in an inclusive manner” would make people more self-aware, thereby increasing the diversity of voices heard. At the end of the day, awareness is central to a large number of improvements and simple, rather than drastic, changes can go a long way to improving equality.

You need to work a little…

In my 2019 list of suggestions for male scientists to help improve gender equality, there were a number of items (speaker suggestions, interview shortlists, etc) that required men to take a moment to consider whether they were acting in a gender-balanced manner. Taking just a few moments can have a dramatic impact on outcomes.

One of the most commonly cited problems with hiring in a gender-equal fashion is the applicant pool – if the applicant pool lacks X, it’s impossible to hire X. Similarly, if there are very few Xs, the chances that the final interviewee pool will be balanced is also lower. This is an issue that people far more qualified than me have discussed at length and there are already many strategies for trying to improve the gender balance in an applicant pool, most of which are not difficult to achieve.

In the CamAWiSE panel last week, an interesting strategy employed by L’Oréal, Rolls Royce and Jaguar Land Rover was discussed. These companies have struggled to recruit equally across both sexes (men for L’Oréal and women for Rolls Royce and Jaguar Land Rover) so they decided to co-run recruitment events to attract the more candidates from the opposite sex. Sensible idea, simple to orchestrate and may even have saved some cash.

Changing culture takes time, but it’s not a reason to act slowly

Sometimes it seems like big issues such as gender equality never go away and progress, if any, seems glacial in its pace. Articles talk about building on little victories, one step at a time, etc and it can be extremely frustrating if you are part of the marginalized group. It is critical therefore to acknowledge the strengths and progress of previous efforts whilst trying to spur on faster developments. It seems to me that as research scientists, we should be familiar with such processes – few people would look back at the decades of research in their field and claim it was all a total waste of time and not fast enough – rather, they would acknowledge the good bits, ignore the bad bits, and press on with their ambitious new experiments. The same sort of thinking (and acting) needs to happen in the gender equality space in order to speed up progress. One resource that was highlighted during our discussion is Gillian Anderson and Jennifer Nadal’s new book We: A manifesto for women everywhere which appears to focus on framing change as a  journey focused on the collective rather than the individual, but one that starts with individuals.  I’ve not read it yet, but it’s now on my list.

Some oldies but goodies

Of course, the panel discussion also had its share of re-hashing ideas that have been around for ages and until they are adopted as best practice, it’s worth amplifying the good ideas. Professor Dame Athene Donald emphasized the need to remove the financial disincentive for men to take parental leave (i.e., it’s hard to blame a family for sending the man to work if his salary is greater) and several panel members discussed the benefits of 50:50 leave and/or use-it-or-lose systems employed in other countries. More words were spilled on the plight of the postdoctoral fellow system where the power structure is such that the supervisor holds all the cards and the need for independent and disinterested advice channels to support this particularly delicate career stage. Unconscious bias was discussed and here I definitely recommend a read of Professor Donald’s recent blog on the long and windy road of unconscious bias training.

Finally, on a note of positive encouragement, I felt especially pleased that of the 21 other male group leaders in my institute, three attended (including two senior professors) this early evening session on men as allies and one even took pen to paper about it and brought his own two daughters along. Small victories.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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