Challenging bias against women is a ‘marathon not a sprint’

14 October 2018

An internationally renowned speaker on gender equality issues gave an inspiring but hard-hitting talk at the AMRC– warning staff that bias against women in science is something that cannot be fixed overnight.

The University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) hosted Professor Paul Walton for his talk entitled ‘Gender Equality in Higher Education: Now, Sometime, Never?’

Paul is a professor in the University of York’s Department of Chemistry - the first in the UK to obtain the Athena Swan Gold Award in 2007, which recognises commitment to tackling gender inequality in higher education, and celebrates good practice in the recruitment, retention and support of careers of women in science, engineering and technology.

He discussed some of the resistances against the progression of women, why they arise, what can be done about them, and what they reveal about gender inequality in higher education.

Paul didn’t hold back for his audience – which included Executive Dean of the AMRC Keith Ridgway and chief executive Colin Sirett – saying the progression of women in higher education and science, and across most scientific organisations, is significantly hindered compared with men, leading to a loss of talent.

A key message was for the AMRC to focus more on data than anecdotal evidence or rely on assumptions when it comes to showing challenge in needed – citing UK data that showed a drop-off rate of women in higher academic posts compared with men, and a serious disparity in pay between genders.

“Women are disadvantaged at every single stage of life, yes it’s true,” said Paul, who has given more than 200 lectures on the subject across the globe, speaking in four continents this year alone.

He asked staff what they believed are the innate differences are between men and women in ambition, maths ability, confidence, psychological wellbeing, self-esteem.

“When you strip away all the outside factors, the answer is for true differences in male and female ability in these categories, is the following: zero. There is no difference.”

He spoke at length about ‘unconscious bias’ and how people are biased against women in science – even if they don’t think they are. He said he includes himself in that list after taking the Harvard Implicit Association test - which he urged staff to do. It measures implicit attitudes and beliefs that people are either unwilling or unable to report.

Paul said: “It times your responses to particular prompts. What it does is categorises you – whether you have a strong unconscious association of science with men or strong unconscious association of science with women.

“I did this test and where do I come out, every single time, without fail? I have a strong bias of associating science with men. If you say scientist, I think man. I spend a lot of time correcting myself and it’s difficult. So being self-aware is the first step.”

The lessons he urged staff to take away was to share data – including pay data; to have strong leadership in place to drive through change in gender equality; to learn from social science research; and, importantly, to keep the debate alive.

He said the journey to challenging gender bias is a long one – and the ball is now in the AMRC’s court.

“You cannot whistle up equality overnight. It takes more than a few policies, it is a cultural and behavioural. It takes a long time - ten to 15 years is possible. It is a marathon and not a sprint.”

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