IVF

In a paper I presented yesterday to the Kings College Maudsley Debates, I set out why the under-representation of women in the highest echelons of academia does not reflect inequality of opportunity, or even a lack of gender equality.

It simply reflects the differences between women and men. Furthermore, attempts to change this are not only ineffective, they are counterproductive.

First of all, it is a myth that women are being discriminated against in recruitment. Recent research shows, to the contrary, that faculty members prefer female applicants by 2:1 over identically qualified males. A report from the Paris School of Economics, which analysed 100,000 applications to high level teaching positions, found an overwhelming gender bias in favour of women. In the past, it is true that gender discrimination was a cause of women’s under-representation in academia, but this claim has continued to be invoked when it is no longer valid.

So if we women are not discriminated against why are they still so under-represented in the upper echelons of academia?

There is an incredibly strong feminist ideological drive to ignore sex differences as an explanation, but you do not have to scratch far beneath the surface to find that, although we exist on a spectrum, we are binary – male and female – best reflected in our different relationship to the central reproductive role.

Even when you give men and women equal parental leave, women are much more keen to use it than men. If women have the choice, most would do more childcare and willingly reduce their hours of work. These family priorities shape women’s choices and values like letters running through a stick of rock.

Among similarly matched male and female top math and science graduates, gender differences increased over time because when women had children they changed their priorities. Other research shows that female PhD students are more likely than men to find research intensely isolating, demanding and all consuming. Women complain too that academia is “work centric”. Crucially, they favour part-time employment devoting less time to their work.

This may well be why they choose other areas of employment, but it is wrong to see women as being ‘pushed out’ of high flying academia. The truth is that there are not that many men who choose the academic path. But unlike women, they have fewer and less attractive options available to them. If you are talking about individuals with strong mathematical abilities and also strong verbal abilities (which includes a lot more women than men), then they have non-STEM career options open to them to pursue as well. This gives women graduates opportunities not available to men – like in public sector work.

Mistakenly,  the response of the ‘Athena Swan Charter’  warriors to all this is to try to change universities and even their approach to science. ‘The problem is with science!’, they loudly proclaim.

Yet there is no evidence that the UK has a problem with science. Our scientific achievements are world class, which could be a result of our ability to still attract truly motivated people, who see science and academic study as a vocation, and which has marked out our scientific achievement as great.

The advocates of Athena Swan’s change charter would happily sacrifice scientific achievement on the altar of ‘gender sameness’.

Let’s look at the sorts of things they like to see done.

One is taking women’s gender into consideration in promotion criteria – and already promotions appear to be prioritising ‘correcting gender imbalances’.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the feeling that good performance is not adequately rewarded pervades the research world.

Secondly, they want to see projects being stopped while the funding applicant takes maternity leave, extensive flexible employment encouraged and resources are directed to facilitating part-time work.

The assumption here is that this will increase the number of women in academia, and this in itself will be good for research.

But will it be?

Academic achievement is not just about ability or intelligence. It is also about application, concentration, dedication and commitment. Above all, it is about very hard work and graft.

Now I am very reluctant to concede that women have less stamina or work less hard than men – but encouraging a family-centred academic culture is an encouragement to work less hard. More dangerously, it creates the real risk of undermining the research culture for all.

The Athena Swan argument is that it increases the talent pool. But if it is really the talent pool we are worrying about, surely the focus should be less on the 10,500 women missing from senior positions in academia than the 175,000 missing male graduates. This constitutes the very much more serious loss.

Not only does Athena Swan, with its obsession about high status women, threaten to damage academia, these very policies are disadvantaging women themselves. A brilliant physicist from Cambridge recounts how it took 6 months to write the Athena Swan Gold award application with the assistance of more than 20 other people including central university staff and colleagues. This equated to two terms of teaching. Not only were her students missing out on this female role model, but what a waste of her time and resources. In last month’s edition of the BMJ (British Medical Journal), a woman recounted how she could have written two papers in the time she spent working on Athena Swan.

Remember, finally, that to get Department of Health funding for you next academic funding, you will soon have to get your Athena Swan Silver (compliance) medal first.

What does it say when funders prioritise gender equality over the excellence of research? Not much for the research.

Women share most of the same abilities as men but tend to make different choices, even when all opportunities are open to them. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, there is much that is good. Academia and scientific achievement will suffer enormously if political obsession with gender sameness is allowed to compromise research excellence.