I am in the University-wide committee for the Athena SWAN initiative and, for now, responsible for putting in an application for an award by the Department of Computer Science.
It’s been difficult to even explain to people what Athena SWAN is. It is described as a charter, which according to my dictionary is a kind of contract, or some document giving some rights, which doesn’t clarify matters much. And the name too leaves people baffled: Athena is fine, after all the godess of knowledge and the sciences., but is SWAN an acronym? I am still not sure. It has been set up by The UKRC, not to be confused by RCUK (the latter being the well-known partnership between UK Research Councils). All this is enough to make my head swim!
Despite the above confusion, Athena SWAN seems like a great initiative, in its objective to recognize good practice in supporting women working in the sciences in higher education and research. Over the years there have been several initiatives, such as AWISE which I tried to bring to the Midlands many years back, but which seems to have fizzled out, as well as WISE, and I am sure several others. It seems that Athena SWAN is attempting to satisfy its objective not just at a grassroots level but by exerting some top-down pressure as well, so it seems likely to bear some fruit.
Amongst the disciplines covered by the initiative, it seems that Computer Science is probably one that is in most need of help. Female numbers amongst students has never been high but seems to be decreasing. A colleague at another University was wrily talking about his success in doubling the number of female staff, only to clarify by saying they only had one female colleague before.
And yet, many of the women I talk to don’t really want to engage with the issue, mostly with the fear that any effort will be seen as an attempt to give them an unfair advantage, that they would much rather succeed on their own merit. And then there is the ironic side-effect that, by being the ones to engage with the charter and prepare the application, they will spread themselves even more thinly and be further away from the goals set by the Gods above, namely A* publications and big grants, which at the end of the day are the main measures of productivity.
Anyway, what are the issues, and what can be done?
The issue of why young women don’t come into Computer Science has caused many debates. Many causes are advanced, discussed, and some measures are undertaken in some limited setting, but I haven’t really seen a significant solution.
Recently, Prof Wendy Hall wrote in the Guardian that she believed the perception of CS as a geeky discipline was putting girls off. Somehow this headline didn’t really convince me, but upon reading the article I saw other points being made, principally that girls thought that “… if they study computing they are going to become secretaries.” This seems to be much more of a serious issue than an anti-geekiness bias. Somehow there still seems to be a perception that CS is just not for girls, which is not something the girls are inventing from nowhere but which they are concluding from clues they are given, even if unconsciously or subtly. Not many role models.
In my department we have been trying to engage with schools recently, and this last year I was involved in two occasions, one where I introduced 13-14 yr olds to Computational Biology and the other where I helped 11-12 yr olds use Scratch and try to program nice star-shapes with it. Neither activity was geared towards girls specifically, and I found that the girls in the groups were as enthusiastic and attentive as the boys (if not more). So it seems that at that age at least they are still amenable to being lured into an interest in computing. I hope we continue with these efforts.
But Athena SWAN is, I believe, primarily concerned with women who have already made a start in the discipline and who either drop off from careers in teaching and research or who stagnate and do not reach their potential.
Some of the factors seem to be about the old juggling family and career conundrum, and in fact the support is not so much for women in academia but having family-friendly policies. And, as far as some of the issues, Computer Science seems particularly suitable for the kind of flexibility that both male and female colleagues here have taken up: the freedom to work from home when working on research, readjusting teaching times to suit school runs and so on. Other issues are more problematic, such as attending conferences or dealing with school holidays, but my observation of colleagues with small kids leads me to think these are not very vexing issues here (but I am happy to be corrected).
But what are the issues that affect women more than men? I have been very interested in a discussion led by Prof Athene Donald about the impostor syndrome, the feeling that one has only got as far as one has by some fluke of luck, orbeing at the right place at the right time, but in the end not deserving to get any further. So, a lack of self-confidence, which probably arises from that early perception that women don’t really do Computer Science which I alluded to above. As stated by Prof Donald, it is not that men do not suffer from this syndrome, but it seems anecdotally that many more women feel this way. I heard a few years back that, when faced with some criteria for a job, women tend to only apply if they feel they satisfy all the criteria while men would apply as long as they satisfy some of the criteria. It seems that bravura does pay off in the end.
There are other issues, of course, and I can’t paint only a rosy picture of academia. While explicit sexism is in my experience rare, there is often a feeling that women are generally better at some jobs, such as the nurturing which is helpful for tutoring students through personal issues, or the more organisational/secretarial skills required in, for example dealing with examinations. Whether men can more often willfully make themselves inept for such duties is open to debate. It is however the case that these organizational and/or nurturing skills are rarely seen as reasons to promote anyone in an academic job. The same people may actually also have the research skills which are rewarded, but they have little time left to demonstrate these skills, and thus the vicious circle is set up.
I suppose I will be thinking about all these issues over the next few months while I prepare our Athena SWAN submission and will be discussing with colleagues and students, and hopefully with anyone who reads these thoughts and is driven to comment, either here or directly via email or phone or a knock on my office door.