Friday, October 30, 2020
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Belinda Brown: Boys have been abandoned by the gender equality bandwagon


This week has seen a parliamentary discussion on how to increase ‘diversity’ in STEMM subjects. We have also had some front page headlines about the lack of freedom of speech in universities. Tomorrow evening I hope to show that freedom of speech is still alive and well in UCL.

I plan to examine the impact of academia’s foremost weapon in the fight for equal opportunities for women – Athena Swan. I intend to question the most sacred academic cow and stimulate open discussion on equal opportunities itself.

The rationale behind equality of opportunity is the idea of increasing the pool of talent from which selection occurs. This lies at the heart of meritocracy and this is what these policies are about. For example, the Royal Society explains that it: “…fosters excellence in science. But this can only be achieved if we select from the widest range of talent and that’s not possible if unconscious bias is narrowing down the field for non-scientific reasons”.

I will argue that there are two other equally vital ingredients to a fully functioning meritocracy.

Firstly, a level playing field where the rules are fair to those playing the game. Secondly, effort and our ability as a society to cultivate it (here we could look at the role of the family as well as the workplace but I will leave that discussion till another day). These are key to the whole meritocratic formula and often get left out.

When Michael Young, founder of the Open University, wrote “The Rise of the Meritocracy” in 1958 his formula for merit was Merit equals intelligence plus effort – M=I+E.  Policies aimed at promoting meritocracy have focused only on intelligence i.e. the number of clever individuals in the pool of talent.

However, effort is absolutely key. As Einstein observed, genius is five per cent inspiration and 95 per cent perspiration. That perspiration includes not only hard work, but higher levels of concentration and the ability to dedicate time, thought and focus. These are key ingredients to achievement; probably more important than innate intelligence. And this is where policies on equality of opportunity miss out.

Athena Swan might help with recruitment and retention. If you can work in a prestigious institution whilst taking your kids to school and even collecting them, work from home at your choosing, be included in all meetings because they are held in ‘core’ hours (between school drop-off and pick-up), really what’s not to like?

There is another part of the equation. The emphasis on work-life balance and flexible employment appear to almost discourage time intensive commitment because this would disadvantage those for whom family was as important as work. The departmental meetings and coffee mornings and other networking events need to be fitted into ‘core hours’, when for many this is the best time for concentrated work. Quality of output is emphasized over quantity  – but can quality be equally good when you are simply doing less work? All of this is before you factor in the levels of time, energy and even financial commitment you have to expend applying for your Athena Swan.

By 2017, many funding bodies will require you to prove your equal opportunity credentials usually by getting an Athena Swan Silver Award.

To get this funding it is not sufficient to do your gender bias training, even up your recruitment panels, field women only teams on open days. You have to show ‘impact’ – i.e. you have to show that the number of women in senior levels is actually going up. Otherwise you won’t get that vital silver award.

This is where it gets really dirty. Positive action can legitimise a certain amount of corrective female bias. However when funding depends on increasing the number of women at senior levels a look at Athena Swan application forms suggests to me that there is a serious risk of going beyond positive action. It could be that the potential exists for men to be subtly and not so subtly discriminated against. Academic departments may be forced to more than bend the rules of the game.

It is one thing for men to outnumber women in senior positions because there are hardly any women to choose from. It is another thing to promote or advantage a disproportionate number of women while there are plenty of men swimming in the pool.

In the long run this risks discouraging and alienating men who have provided the backbone of the academic profession which is stressful, competitive and where the rewards are low compared to industry. Is this something we really want to do?

If we really want to increase equality of opportunity perhaps we should focus on young boys whose difficulties learning to read far outweigh the difficulties maths presents for girls. Or maybe we should focus on the 20 per cent of boys missing from A levels. Or the 35 per cent of boys missing from university. This goes up to 52 per cent missing if we look at those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Alternatively we could focus on the majority of university subjects from which men are conspicuously absent – psychology, law, teaching or languages are some of the biggest offenders here.  There is even an eight per cent predominance of women if we look at STEMM.

Or we could consider the needs of the discipline. Gender doesn’t matter when you are doing scientific experiments. But it may do if you are a psychologist trying to reduce male suicide rates or a teacher trying to make sure that boys get through school.

If you really want more female engineers – forget your equal opportunities policies. Instead increase the profile and status of engineering through a few more professional qualifications and increase the pay. Glamorize it with a TV thriller about a male or female engineer. Make it look as desirable and exciting as law or medicine – previously male bastions. You will find that you quickly get women on board.

The event will take place on Thurs 21st Jan, 6.00 – 7.15pm, at UCL’s A.V. Hill Lecture Theatre, Gower St, London. For further details, please see

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Belinda Brown
Belinda Brown is author of 'The Private Revolution' and a number of well-cited academic papers. More recently, she has started writing and blogging for The Daily Mail and The Conservative Woman. She has a particular interest in men's issues and the damage caused by feminism.

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