Monday, August 30, 2010

Tinkering, Tailoring , Transforming

There are two 'big ideas' or explanatory frameworks that made a big impression on me when I first started working in women in SET as opposed to being a woman scientist. One was Teresa Rees's description of different approaches to gender equality as 'Tinkering, Tailoring and Transforming'.

Tinkering refers to an approach based on equal treatment. This is the approach that underlay legislation such as the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) and the Equal Pay Act (1970): it is illegal to treat someone less favourably on the grounds of sex.

The second approach recognizes that equal treatment may not be sufficient to achieve equality: deeply engrained differences make it essential to take action to tackle disadvantages. This is the ethos behind positive action and Rees refers to it as tailoring. The focus of much 'tailoring' activity is adjusting women to accommodate existing structures and processes, for example, 'Women into management' courses.

Transforming sees differences not as a problem to be overcome but as something to be embraced for mutual benefit. In this approach the focus is on adjusting structures and processes to accommodate differences or mainstreaming.

Clearly, institutions must comply with the legal requirement not to discriminate. Also, most people think that equal treatment is fair.

Positive action can be very powerful, especially initiatives that encourage women to advance in their careers while embracing their identities as women. The disadvantage is that it can lead to a focus on 'deficit model' or 'male as norm' approaches in which the problem is seen as being that women are not men with the solution being to 'fix the women' by encouraging them to act more like men. (Note that 'deficit model' is used with two quite different meanings in the literature. For example, Sonnert and Holton, American Scientist 84 (1996) 63-71, see, define the 'deficit model' to mean that women receive fewer chances and opportunities along their career paths as a result of legal, political or social structural obstacles. On the other hand, Carol B. Muller, founder of MentorNet  refers to the 'deficit model' as the assumption that women lack something - ability, experience, interest, inspiration, motivation - that they need to succeed, see Pan-Organizational Summit on the U.S. Science and Engineering Workforce (2003)). Positive action measures can also lead to resentment both among men who feel that women are being given an unfair advantage and among women who feel that they are being labelled as in need of remedial help.

Rees describes the difference between positive action and mainstreaming as

'Rather than helping round women fit into square holes, it makes those holes more adaptable – to take all sizes and shapes.'

The advantage of mainstreaming is that it embeds equality within the organization rather than seeing it as an optional, or externally imposed, extra. The process of embedding equality may lead to resentment: some are unhappy with any measure that goes beyond equal treatment, some will interpret changes as special treatment, and some have a deeply held belief that employees ought to mould themselves to their employer's requirements. The principal disadvantage is that it is difficult to achieve. Inequality results from a large number of interacting factors. Identifying issues and appropriate actions is difficult; monitoring progress on any useful timescale near impossible.

All three approaches are necessary. It is important that people be treated fairly. It is necessary that women should be empowered to succeed within the current structures and processes. We can't wait for them to be fixed. To achieve genuine equality structures and processes have to change.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Yesterday evening I went to a Dunedin AWIS meeting at which three scientists spoke about their careers. One of the things they had been asked to do was comment on things they like and things they dislike about their jobs. Listening to their remarks set me thinking about what were the things I liked and disliked about working in women in SET. So here they are:

Likes (in no particular order)
  • The occasions when someone told me, either via a feedback form or in person, that an event I had facilitated made a difference to her life.
  • The chance to meet some amazing women. Not just the high-fliers; some of the women with less stellar careers have inspirational stories of courage and persistence.
  • The intellectual challenge. Understanding the issues for women in SET involves thinking about interacting people which is a much more difficult problem than the interacting electrons I was accustomed to. However, extracting signal from noise is a problem both activities have in common and there are interesting experimental data and explanatory frameworks in women in SET, see, for example, Virgina Valian’s ‘Why so slow? The advancement of women?
  • The variety and opportunity to develop a wide range of skills: I could be facilitating a personal development course one day, analysing data the next and representing the University at a meeting the following day.
  • Being a Springboard trainer.
  • Believing that the ultimate aim of what I was doing was to make the University a place where women have an equal opportunity with men to fulfil their potential in SET, even if they also choose to live with a partner and have children. (I also believe that many of the measures that are required for this to happen would make the University a better place for everyone.)

Dislikes (in no particular order)
  • The fact that progress happens in very small incremental steps. This is true in science as well but at least you can package your small incremental step in a paper.
  • A preference in administration for structure and process over function and outcome.
  • A general tendency to keep starting again from scratch instead of learning from and building on what has gone before. In science you usually do a literature search to see what is already known before you start designing experiments. In women in SET it seems to be more normal not just to re-invent the wheel but to re-invent heptagonal wheels.
  • The difficulty of obtaining relevant data.
  • People who ignore or misinterpret data.
  • Poorly defined requests for data or requests that were framed in ways that may have made sense to the requester but certainly didn’t to me.
  • Zombie arguments – arguments that continue to surface no matter how many times they are rebutted. (See, for example, Isis on John Tierney.]
  • Action Plans. As far as I can tell, the appearance of an action in an ‘Action Plan’ is pretty much a guarantee that it won’t happen. (Reports on action plans become exercises in presenting the things that did happen as though they were the things that were planned to happen - No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy's main strength (Helmuth von Moltke the Elder).)
  • A variant of the Snark syndrome in which if women’s lived experience conflicts with prevailing wisdom on issues for women in SET it is the women’s experience that is discounted.

I have listed more dislikes than likes. That does not reflect my actual experience. I recently read The CEO and the Monk: One Company’s Journey to Profit and Purpose by Robert B. Catell (the CEO), Kenny Moore (the Monk) and Glenn Rifkin (business journalist) (Wiley, 2004). Moore describes sending a note of encouragement to someone who wanted to do something unusual with the quote
‘Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs are people who have come alive.’
(according to Wikipedia this quote is attributed to Howard Thurman).

Working in women in SET made me come alive.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Snark Syndrome

In my local public library I came across 'Women and Science: The Snark Syndrome' by Eileen Byrne, Professor of Education at the University of Queensland. It was published in 1993 and describes the results of a review of research and policy regarding women in science in Australia in in the mid-1980s. The title is taken from Lewis Carroll's 'The Hunting of the Snark':

'Just the place for a Snark!' the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man at the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.

'Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true'.

Having noted that a great deal of the received wisdom in the area of women in science is still based on assumptions, beliefs and prejudices operating at the level of superstition noted by Hypatia (between 350and 370 – 415 AD), Byrne defines the Snark Syndrome as the assertion of an alleged truth or belief or principle as the basis for policy or practice that neither has a basis in sound empirical research nor is consonant with established theory. She goes on to describe the Snark effect which requires firstly that the educator, teacher or policy-maker has internalized an assertion from hearing it being constantly repeated ('What I tell you three times is true') when the asserted belief is either unfounded or only occasionally and contextually true and secondly that the internalized belief is used to justify and implement major policies.

The research was focussed on the recruitment of women to undergraduate courses in science and engineering and retention to post-graduate, in particular, Ph.D. Courses. The researchers identified ten core factors:
  • same-sex role models for women
  • the mentor process
  • the image of different branches of science and technology (male, female or sex-neutral; socially responsible or systems- and machine-oriented)
  • male attitudes to females in 'non-traditional' disciplines; female attitudes (self-esteem, or towards peers)
  • single-sex versus co-education
  • prerequisites and school patterns of curricular choices as critical filters
  • mathematics as a negative critical filter
  • careers education and vocational counselling
  • women's support networks
  • affirmative action projects in science and technology
The research reported in the book covers role-modelling, mentorship, attitudes, image, mathematics as a critical filter and single-sex schooling versus co-education. As well as reviewing previous work the researchers gathered data on women in science and engineering in ten institutions in Australia and also both circulated papers to staff for their response and carried out group interviews with staff.

One of the factors that was particularly affected by the Snark syndrome was role-modelling. They distinguished two hypotheses. The first was:
• same-sex role-modelling is an important influence on breaking the stereotypes of ascribed masculinity and femininity in the vocational setting of curricular choice and of career aspiration.

They concluded that the research tended to support this hypothesis.

The second hypothesis was stronger:
• the acquisition of more female staff in a given discipline will, in itself, result in an increase in female students.

They concluded that this hypothesis is not supported by sound empirical evidence and nor is it consistent with well-grounded rigorous theory. One of their suggestions is that there needs to be a critical mass of women in a particular role for that role to be seen as 'sex-normal'.

However, when they analyzed the views of academic staff they found that, of those who said there were visible women in their discipline, almost all assumed that their mere presence would cause a same-sex modelling process to take place for female students. Furthermore some believed strongly that same sex role models were essential while others argued for the equal value of opposite-sex role-models. The researchers note:
'Both views were frequently described in terms of secure belief without any evidential basis for the belief. The strength of the convictions was inversely correlated with the presence of any factual basis.'
They also noted that role-modelling tended to be confused with mentoring.

Byrne suggests two policy consequences of the widespread but unsupported belief that the presence of women staff would increase enrollments by women. First, it provides an alibi for male inaction:
'It is significant that almost all the proposals put forward both in interviews and in writing also involved women taking on more work, but no traceable expected change on the part of men.'
Secondly, active role-modelling wastes women's scarce time. This does not mean that women should not be visible in the normal course of their work on committees, at public events and forums and as delegates to meetings and conferences. Simply that they should not be asked to participate in additional activities aimed at providing role models for secondary school girls:
'Grants and project money spent on ferrying untypical women to small functions without the context of an overall strategy to attack sex-role stereotyping in books, careers materials and the visual media is likely to be a total waste of scarce public money'.
Byrne also reports some of the reactions to the study:
'This is, of course, exactly the kind of garbage I associate the feminist movement with, and I hope you do not really expect me to waste my time reading it and trying to figure out what all these nonsensical questions mean! It is bad enough that we have to pay tax so that the government can employ people to produce this sort of rubbish; you can't expect me to also spend time on it.'
Policy based on clear definitions, logic and empirical evidence! What will these feminists want next?

The ability to judge the contents of a document without actually reading it is, of course, widespread in academia.

She finishes by telling a story about a conversation during one of the group interviews:
After reading the first four discussion papers in advance, and listening to the group discussion of the issues raised, a Professor from a discipline in which girls were well into the 'abnormal/rubric of exceptions' minority, said: 'Professor Byrne, I have a problem. You are two women directing this project. Do you not think that this invalidates the results?'

After a moment's stunned silence, I replied, 'Professor X, let me be clear what question you are asking. You are saying that because we do not have a mixed-sex research team, our research into these issues is invalid? Presumably you will accept that, then, 90% of scientific research so far is invalid because it has been conducted exclusively by men?'

He shook his head uncertainly.

'I'm sorry. You are saying that because we are women, we are less able or well qualified and need what Simone de Beauvoir termed a “male mediator between us and the Universe”?

He hastily protested that our qualifications and experience were impressive.

'I'm sorry to have misunderstood again. You are saying that because we are women, even if our research is in fact sound, no one will listen to us, simply because we are women?'

As the Professor struggled to come to terms with that, a colleague came to his rescue. 'I think what my colleague is saying, Professor Byrne, is that it would be a pity if so much wide-ranging and substantially funded research on so important an issue, were not influential because …' His voice died away.

I said quietly, 'So you are in fact saying that he believes that however right women are, they cannot be listened to with the same scholarly clout as men?'
That was in 1986, nearly a quarter of a century ago. Have things changed since then? Many policies intended to increase the numbers of women entering, staying in and progressing in SET are still based on the Snark Effect, that is, on internalized beliefs that are unsupported by evidence. In fact, these internalized beliefs are often impervious to facts. If the facts do not support the belief people look for reasons why the facts are wrong. For example, if the figures show that women are just as likely to be promoted as men it must be because the figures are based on an incorrect definition of who is eligible for promotion since it is well known that women are less likely to be promoted than men. I am not sure that the reaction that research on women in science and engineering cannot be objective if it is carried out by women, though of course, it would be objective if carried out by men, has entirely died out, either.