Slow Progress for Female Physics Professors

One of the more pleasant jobs I have to do these days is to congratulate staff in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex when they get promoted, whether it be to Senior Lecturer, Reader or Professor. There has been quite a crop of promotions at all levels in the School recently, owing to the excellent contributions made by so many people to teaching, research and other aspects of the work we do.

One of the successful promotion candidates in the latest round was the Head of our Experimental Particle Physics group, Antonella de Santo, whose promotion to Professor of Physics makes her the first ever female Professor of Physics at the University of Sussex. I’m rather embarrassed to admit that, actually, as the University has existed for 51 years, but at least I can say better late then never!

Anyway, Antonella’s well-deserved success prompted me to look into the statistics of female physics & astronomy professors. I’ve already posted about how the proportion of female undergraduates studying physics as been stuck at around the 20% mark for a decade despite strenuous efforts to widen participation. A recent (2012) study by the Institute of Physics contains a wealth of statistical information about staff in Physics departments, which I encourage people to read if they’re interested in the overall issue with equality and diversity in physics. Here I’ll just pull out the figure (based on a 2010 survey) that out of a total of 650 Professors of Physics (and/or Astronomy) in the UK, just 5.5% were female. At that date about 20 physics departments had no female professors at all; that would have included Sussex, of course.

Another University, Liverpool, also recently appointed its first female Professor of Physics in the person of Tara Shears, another particle physicist. The current  Head of the  Department of Physics at Imperial Collge is Joanna Haigh, (who I thought was the first to occupy such a position until corrected by the comment below) so there are signs that career prospects are improving for female physicists, but progress is painfully slow. The first ever female Professor of Physics in the United Kingdom was Daphne Jackson, a nuclear physicist, who took up her Chair at the University of Surrey way back in 1971. It’s interesting to note that when Daphne Jackson studied physics as an undergraduate at Imperial College she was one of only two women among the 88 undergraduates in her year.

I don’t personally think that there’s a significant gender bias when it comes to the consideration of promotion cases at the University of Sussex (or at any other institution I’ve worked at), but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that women are much more reluctant than men to put themselves forward for consideration at any level. I hope that recent successes in MPS, such as Antonella’s Professorship and Readerships for astronomer Kathy Romer and mathematician Vanessa Styles, will provide the necessary encouragement.

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42 Responses to “Slow Progress for Female Physics Professors”

  1. Congratulations to Antonella and Tara. But Jo Haigh was not the first ever female Head of Department. Three others that I know pre-dated her are Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Anne Tropper and Gillian Gehring – there may well have been others.

    • telescoper Says:

      Oops! I was misled by a colleague about that. Thanks for the correction. I’ll edit while I hang my head in shame.

  2. As I’m giving a talk on women in Astronomy this evening I shall be stealing statistics from this left right and centre!

    One of the main problems is that physics isn’t seen as being a subject friendly to women so girls are put off from an early age. Less than half of all schools have ANY girls studying physics at A-Level. I don’t think this is an inherent ‘girls just don’t want to do it’ attitude though. As a woman I can tell you I was actively put off the subject by my peers when I was younger. Every time you see a physicist or engineer it’s a man and this is only making the problem worse. For instance the “Brian Cox effect” has led to male submissions for physics going up by 6%. For girls it’s only 3%. There are few women reaching the higher levels because there are fewer women studying the subject.

    Gender preference for the subject aside, women do have problems reaching the higher levels, but this is a problem across the board, not just physics. There was a study done a while ago about hiring women in academia. If an identical CV was submitted but changing the name from Jonathan to Jennifer it was found that it was actually the female professors who judged the women more harshly. Unfortunately I can’t find the link to the study right now.

    • telescoper Says:

      I remember talking to a new female undergraduate student at Cardiff a couple of years ago. She told me her physics teacher (a man) had told her girls couldn’t do physics because their brains didn’t work the right way. With people like that as teachers it’s surprising that there aren’t even fewer female undergraduates.

      • Obviously not a comment (the one from the physics teacher, not from Telescoper) I can condone. On the other hand, when arguing for more women in highly paid and/or prestigious jobs, some pundits have no hesitation in pointing out that this would be good for the company/the country/the world because women “think differently”, are “more networked”, are “less competitive” etc, and most would argue that these advantages are due to nature, not nurture.

  3. If one is interested in some sort of gender-balanced equality among physics professors, then shouldn’t this be a goal for all occupations? Hardly any occupation has an equal number of men and women, not even within the expected fluctuations. One often hears claims that there should be more women in highly paid and/or prestigious professions where there are more men, but only rarely hears claims that there should be more men in highly paid and/or prestigious professions where there are more women, or that there should be more women in badly paid and/or less prestigious professions where there are more men, or that there should be more men in badly paid and/or less prestigious professions where there are more women.

    Studies also suggest that despite all the changes in gender roles in the last decade, one thing which has remained roughly the same is that most women prefer to marry a man who is taller, older and richer than themselves (I can dig out a reference if anyone doubts me on this). The first is easy and would happen most of the time even if there were no preference. The second means that the man will usually be a bit farther along in his career, so any improvement for him would probably mean more total improvement than improvement for her, which might influence family planning. The third puts pressure on men to opt for a more highly paid job, even if they would otherwise prefer another one. Most men in this day and age, on the other hand, wouldn’t object to a wife who earns more.

    • Here’s the reference: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/state-politics/singles-bar-removed-but-politics-remains/story-e6frgczx-1225995944490

      I couldn’t remember at first where I had read it, but it is the sole result returned by Google for the query “shorter, poorer blokes”. 🙂

    • I agree in principle, but the fact is that (in the US at least), most traditional “women’s” jobs (teacher, nurse, child care, etc) are lower paid, so the opportunity cost to one gender being discouraged from entering those fields is lower than the other gender being discouraged from high-paying positions. That said, men who enter traditionally female-dominated fields often face similar, unfair stigmas as what face women interested in male-dominated fields.

    • Phillip, I’m struggling to think of a ‘highly paid and/or prestigious profession[] where there are more women’. Maybe that tells us something.

      Also, a point about physics/astro specifically (though it probably applies elsewhere in UK academia too) is that the proportions of women decline as you go through from PhD student (where, at least on the astro side, we have something like equality) to postdoc to junior and senior lecturer, reader and professor. This is widely thought to suggest that we may be doing something wrong, independently of the overall fraction of women (though it’s probably at least partly due to the much smaller number of women entering postgrad physics 20 years ago).

      • Yes, it does tell us something, though there are such professions (modelling for example). It is also a well known fact that female porn actresses make much more money than their male, errm, counterparts. The snickering which such a statement generates demonstrates how far from true gender equality we are.

        However, I think the other end of the scale is equally important. To take an example from a recent post on this blog, there are more dustmen than dustwomen. Neither well paid nor prestigious nor, probably, a source of joy for the (mostly) blokes who do such a job (which is obviously beneficial to society). Not many people campaign for more women in such jobs, nor for more male nurses nor more men in child care.

        My view is that if one has the goal of gender equality, then it should apply to all jobs.

        At the risk of being politically incorrect, I cannot fail to point out that there are many more women who don’t work at all, or just earn a bit doing something they enjoy, because their husbands make more than enough, than there are men in similar positions.

  4. I enjoy reading this blog and I agree that it’s great to see talented female physicists being promoted. I’m also glad you’ve drawn attention to the issue of gender inequality; getting people talking about it is excellent. It’s particularly powerful when the person starting a conversation about promoting equality comes from the advantaged group. So, thank you.

    However, this post is also part of the problem. The statement:

    “I don’t personally think that there’s a significant gender bias when it comes to the consideration of promotion cases at the University of Sussex (or at any other institution I’ve worked at)…”

    is worrisome, because it seems to imply that either you think unconscious bias does not exist at Sussex and other institutions you’ve worked at, or you think it is insignificant. Yet unconscious bias is pervasive and powerful — I’d wager it’s even more powerful nowadays than those few dismissable dinosaurs on committees who say things like “girls’ brains don’t work the right way”. The CV example cited above is just one of many studies that consistently demonstrate the existence and strong influence of unconscious bias. The most recent version of the CV study I know of was specifically focused on the subtle bias of science faculty, and it is very much alive and well in 2012:
    http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/09/14/1211286109

    The most worrying thing about your statement is that it has also been shown that those who are certain they are not biased are the most likely to let their bias influence their decisions. It’s hard to correct for something you don’t think exists.

    The “at least neither I nor my friends are part of the problem” complacency is so common among well-meaning colleagues that I often don’t bother to comment on it, but your blog is influential in the community, so I’m hoping you’ll be open-minded about this criticism. I am glad you’re helping to continue this conversation, and I hope next time you will consider just how powerful it could be for you and others in influential positions to acknowledge that we all have many biases and that working to actively minimize them is the best way forward. Until then I suspect the field will continue to be vulnerable to this uncorrected systematic effect.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’ll quote the relevant part of the post:

      I don’t personally think that there’s a significant gender bias when it comes to the consideration of promotion cases at the University of Sussex (or at any other institution I’ve worked at)

      You will I hope agree that I never claimed to be “certain” that I am “not biased”. My experience of the specific process described here has, however, led me to believe that the process – which involves panels operating under strict guidelines – is not significantly biased with respect to gender, at least compared to that caused by the reluctance of (or more likely lack of encouragement of) women to put themselves forward. No system is perfect of course, and I fully admit that there all kinds of conscious and unconscious biases that beset women at all stages of their careers, but I do believe that they are worse at junior levels than at senior levels. In other words, the biggest trouble is that there is so much attrition of talented women before they reach professorial levels. There are other biases too, not just those arising from gender.

      The study you quote is of doubtful relevance. It relates to bias much further down the career ladder than I was discussing in my post as it discusses students applying for (presumably) an entry-level job. I’ve already stated that I think such biases are much worse earlier on.

      Having just spent part of this afternoon on another panel which led to the promotion of another woman (this time to a Chair in Psychology), I still believe that the big problem is at earlier career stages, not with the promotions process I was discussing in the post other than the fact that too few women put themselves in. I want to encourage more women to put themselves forward for promotion at all levels, but that’s going to be very difficult to achieve if potential candidates remain (in my view wrongly) convinced that the dice are loaded against them.

      That said, I agree that there’s a danger of complacency, so we must be constantly monitoring our procedures for evidence of bias – and we are. I don’t, however, see that as an alternative to the approach of encouraging more women to put themselves forward.

      • The worst thing one can do is promote women who are obviously less qualified than male candidates. Yes, this happens. Yes, it happens in astronomy. No, I won’t mention any names. It is also wrong to be less demanding of women who have been affected, shall we say, by children unless one also asks the male candidates to what degree their careers have suffered because of their children.

      • telescoper Says:

        I don’t see why promoting less qualified female candidates in any worse than promoting less qualified male candidates, which definitely happens.

        But it’s worth stressing that, unlike applying for a job, applying for promotion does not involve entering a competition…one’s case is judged against the stated criteria only, not against other applicants.

      • I agree, it’s not an alternative; both should happen.

        I don’t understand why you feel the problem of unconscious bias is worse at junior levels than senior levels. Do you mean that it has more effect in the long term when it influences a junior person’s behaviour, or that senior people are less likely to be biased? (Or something else?) If it’s the latter, I’m not familiar with the evidence for that. In fact, based on various studies I am under the impression that bias persists at least until there is a critical mass of the disadvantaged group. That would imply that, if anything, bias is less likely to be a factor for very junior people than for very senior people. I know I personally have noticed more incidences of casual sexism since I’ve become a postdoc compared to my PhD years (though they existed then as well, of course). So a statement that the results from the study involving the bias of science faculty don’t apply to more established science faculty doesn’t make sense to me.

        I would be really interested to hear more about the specific guidelines and procedures used by the panels you’ve been on to eliminate the effects of bias. I am not senior enough to have been on a promotion panel yet, but I have heard tales of discrimination both subtle and overt (mostly but not entirely related to gender) from people who have participated in panels from hiring of junior faculty to promotion to full professor. The stories from the senior levels are no more rare than the promotion cases themselves are at that level, and the buildup of such tales can be very disheartening, in part because so many senior people seem to ignore the evidence in favour of faith that the problem will go away on its own. But I’d love to be wrong, and I do agree that candidates who think the process is fair are more likely to put themselves forward than those who think they’ll be discriminated against in some way. So more details about what procedures to counter and eliminate biases work and what don’t, from someone who has been there, would be very illuminating.

      • telescoper Says:

        I only have time right now to answer the first point. I’ll try to return to the later things some other time. My reasoning is that for most junior-level faculty jobs there are many applications for each position so the first cut is extremely difficult. Our recent astro jobs, for example, had >100 applications. When there’s so much paperwork it’s much easier for selectors to be guided by prejudice, even subconsciously. When it’s a Chair promotion there’s only one applicant and the answer is a simple yes or no so there’s more time to view and review whether the application meets the criteria.

      • I think also at the earlier stages of promotion, there’s more assessment of “promise”, which is highly subjective. For senior promotions, the candidate has had many more years to develop an unarguable track record of accomplishment.

      • @Brooke: Let me play devil’s advocate. You mention some experiences with sexism, presumably anti-women. Are you aware of any women in academia who have permanent jobs who wouldn’t have them if they were men? I’m aware of several, both “token women” given a position when they are obviously not the best candidates (and in most cases didn’t have any children, so that is a non-issue here) as well as some who either got a position as a “trailing spouse” because their husband was the best candidate when he applied, or due to other reasons related to sexual relations, both within and outside of marriage.

        Having sex with one’s (future) boss in order to get a job is frowned upon. Getting a job as a trailing spouse because one has sex with the leading spouse is politically correct support of dual-career couples. I don’t get it. (Add to that the fact that academics with a non-academic spouse are often in an even worse position, yet are out-of-scope for many dual-career programmes.)

        I’m not saying that there is no sexism today, and I agree that where it exists, most of it is probably against women. It was, though greater in the past (as when Max Planck told Lise Meitner she couldn’t work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because there were no women’s toilets). In any case, I think it is wrong to use the fact that more anti-women sexism existed in the past to justify preferential treatment of women today, to “even things out”. The victims of this are in no way responsible for mistakes of the past. If anything, such a strategy will backfire when women who really are well qualified are assumed to be where they are due to other reasons.

      • “I don’t see why promoting less qualified female candidates in any worse than promoting less qualified male candidates, which definitely happens.”

        I agree. The point is that it happens less often (proportionally) that less qualified male candidates are promoted and when it happens then usually not because they are men. All forms of nepotism are bad. However, the only form of nepotism which is openly advocated by some is promoting less qualified women, either to make up for injustices in the past or to provide role models for younger women.

  5. “The worst thing one can do is promote women who are obviously less qualified than male candidates. ”

    Unquestionably, and I can’t think of any women who want to feel that they had been promoted for any reason other than merit.

    “It is also wrong to be less demanding of women who have been affected, shall we say, by children unless one also asks the male candidates to what degree their careers have suffered because of their children.”

    This statement I think highlights where some of the problems with women giving up earlier in their careers lie. It is an inescapable fact of human biology that women are the ones who have to bear children, and fortunately for the future of the human race there are plenty who want to (the impending pension crisis would look even worse if they gave up wanting to). Pregnancy can be very uncomfortable for some women in lots of different ways. Even if you are not unlucky enough to end up hospitalized for Hyperemesis, being sick for 9 months constantly can be rather draining and likely to affect your productivity at work. That’s just one example, and while fathers might feel anxious as a result of something like this, they are ultimately not physically affected. Even with an uncomplicated birth (and no post-natal depression), new babies are exhausting and there are some things that fathers biologically just cannot do. However much they may want to do their fair share.

    Then you have childcare. Most people no longer have their extended families on their doorsteps, and the requirement to move around in academic careers makes it even more likely that there will be no family support available. Most people, unless they have a partner with a very well paid job, cannot afford to have live in help, so they are constrained by the times that childminders or nurseries operate, which in turn constrains the hours they can work and the amount of travelling they can do. As we all know, networking and collaborations are a vital part of moving up the career ladder in science, so this is an important restriction. While fathers certainly help much more with childcare these days, it is generally still the case that the primary responsibility for organising all this lies with the mother. Young children also get sick constantly, particularly in new childcare environments. Even if you share the responsibility for taking time off work to deal with that, it is generally the mother who ends up doing most of it. I won’t even get into all the school and extra-curricular activities that most mothers end up having to juggle alongside work. In my experience most fathers, even the ones who genuinely try to do their share, are oblivious to these.

    While there certainly are families these days where the father is the primary carer, they are not even a significant minority, and it’s highly unlikely that they ever will be. I don’t think there is any escape from the fact that women are fundamentally more affected by having children than men are. We should acknowledge it.

    As a new postdoc I sat through a careers talk specifically aimed at women PhD students and PDRAs. Someone asked about having children as a postdoc. The response: if you’re prepared to put them in a drawer somewhere until you get a permanent job you could do it I suppose. As a lecturer when I told my then HoD I was pregnant I was asked whether it was an accident. Things are generally not as bad as that now, and some places have some very positive policies, but those attitudes are still out there, and since, as has already been commented above, male partners are likely to be better paid, many women just give up at the point that they decide they want to have children because they don’t perceive it to be worth it. Particularly if they have not succeeded in getting a permanent job and face the prospect of continuing to move around. Much harder with a family.

    Leaving aside the issue of children, Peter makes a good point about fewer women putting themselves forward for promotion in the first place, but it doesn’t only apply to promotion. Women (with some notable exceptions of course) are less likely to view any of their achievements in the same way that men do, or to push themselves forward in the same way. They are less likely to say no to time consuming administrative tasks that will take time away from the research that ultimately is the thing that will get them up the career ladder. It is much easier to pile these sorts of things on to someone who isn’t going to argue, than to have deal with someone who does. In areas outside of academia it is not as common to have to apply for promotion in quite the same way, and managers have a greater role in assessing the contribution that their employees have made. Perhaps a more pro-active approach needs to be taken in annual appraisals in affirming that women have met the standards for promotion and should apply?

    • I agree. However, women who don’t have children shouldn’t be given preferential treatment simply because most women have children.

      In some countries, having children is not a serious impediment to a career, neither in academia nor elsewhere. Sometimes, it is even seen as an advantage.

      I know many couples where a) the woman was not ill at all during pregnancy (yes, this happens) and b) until the child came into day care, time was split 50/50. After that, both worked full-time.

      I do think that academia should have a more realistic appreciation of children, but this should apply to both sexes. (One can’t demand equality in one field and expect preferential treatment in another because of some evening out when integrated over all people in all countries over all time.)

      Even in cases where the woman bears most of the immediate child-care responsibility, keep in mind that many postdoc salaries (or student loans, or whatever) are not sufficient to support three or more people. As a result, some men with children can only put in 60 hours a week in academia because they are working 40 hours a week moonlighting to make ends meet and lose out to the childless man working 80 hours a week. In such a case, children have a profoundly negative impact on his career. But this is often not brought up by the interviewers during the interview, and often not mentioned by the candidate (perhaps because he is formally not allowed to moonlight).

      There is an easy solution, one which would solve many other problems as well: People should get permanent jobs in academia sooner. Even if one spends the same amount of money, more permanent and less fixed-term positions would be better, and there is no real reason for people not to get a permanent academic job at 30 instead of 40. In the case of people who deservedly have permanent academic jobs, it was in almost all cases obvious that they should even much earlier in their career. For every early appointment who later burns out there are probably ten who were even better but left academia due to job insecurity.

    • “The worst thing one can do is promote women who are obviously less qualified than male candidates. ”

      Unquestionably, and I can’t think of any women who want to feel that they had been promoted for any reason other than merit.

      Probably true. However, there are some who accept such offers nonetheless. 😦

  6. Obviously I agree that women do have a larger role close to and after the birth of children, however, the comment…

    “Even if you share the responsibility for taking time off work to deal with that, it is generally the mother who ends up doing most of it. I won’t even get into all the school and extra-curricular activities that most mothers end up having to juggle alongside work. In my experience most fathers, even the ones who genuinely try to do their share, are oblivious to these.”

    …is not a healthy way to think of things whether you are a man or woman. A couple should be able to work out how to share responsibilities which do not disadvantage one person over the other. Just because it “ends up like this” in most cases probably says more about a relationship rather than an issue that should be solved in the work place. Bottom line is that both parents should get treated the same!

    As someone that was in a relationship where my partner earned substantially more than me, I think it’s fair to say that I know who would have stayed at home more, due to the job flexibility that is possible in academia (but not if you are a woman or man running their own business for example).

    On the issue of bias that Brooke raised…

    Bias has existed on some panels that I have sat on. This bias is not restricted to men interviewing women, but happens in all directions, including women interviewing women and men interviewing men.

    I think this comes down to some people feeling more comfortable/enthusiastic when they interview someone with similar traits as themselves. This would obviously have a bigger effect on female interviewees, as generally interview panels in astronomy have more men than women on them due to the imbalance higher up the food chain.

    But in my experience of interviewing people, such a unconscious bias has been highlighted by other members of the panel – both male and female, and it’s a credit to the person from whom the bias was coming that they acknowledged their bias and reassessed their views. Now I know this probably doesn’t happen in every case but I hope it’s an example of how things are changing as the “old guard” are retiring, and both men and women with a more liberal viewpoint are taking up positions of influence – although possibly not as quickly as we all would like.

    Phillip – you say

    “Even if one spends the same amount of money, more permanent and less fixed-term positions would be better, and there is no real reason for people not to get a permanent academic job at 30 instead of 40.”

    I agree and most of the very good/excellent people that I know with permanent positions (whether male or female) did get them at around 30 rather than 40. Or they had long term fellowships from around 30-35 and then had a guaranteed position at the end of it.

    There is a reason that some people don’t have permanent positions at the age of ~40, and it’s rarely (or never in my experience) to do with sex or any other bias against minorities in astronomy.

    Getting a permanent position is not a right for everyone who does a PhD or postdoc – you have to earn the position, and this is generally based on both track record AND potential. Obviously in some cases this results in some appointments that look odd from the outside, particularly if a job is given based almost entirely on perceived potential. I was on the wrong end of this for many job interviewees, and it is only now that I have been on such appointment panels that I can see why some things may have happened how they did. Although it doesn’t stop me from being bemused by some appointments, I have more of a rounded view on the process.

    The other problem with your argument that there should be more permanent and fewer fixed-term positions is that Universities generally pay the salaries of permanent staff whereas as postdocs are funded on grants from a variety of sources. Universities cannot afford to bankroll way more people on permanent contracts – which is a commitment of ~30-40 years. You could appoint all those 30-40 year olds on fixed term contracts but then you wouldn’t be able to appoint anyone else for another 20-30 years!

    The way forward may be to educate people doing PhDs that their chances of getting a permanent job in astronomy are extremely slim.

    Maybe supervisors/line managers should just be more honest about how good they think the student/postdoc is and tell them that leaving astronomy is a good and viable option for them, rather than convey the sentiment that if you leave then you are a failure.

    Keeping in touch with people that have left (and generally not earn way more money than me) certainly gives me a different perspective that I can then convey to the students and postdocs work with me.

    This may also then reduce the number of bolshy-networking men who aren’t that good and open up more doors for the best women at an earlier stage of their career 🙂

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Hold on. A central problem is that talented people are often not able to compete in junior research careers because of hierarchies and biases. And that can affect women disproportionately.

      Grant holders can choose whether to give postdocs the freedom to pursue their own ideas and methods, or to keep them on a tight rein. It is the people most like the grant holders in character who will be regarded as most talented and worthy of being set free to succeed – that means disproportionately males given that a large majority of academics are men. Established academics decide whether to nominate and support postdocs for fellowship applications, and will through bias, mostly unconscious, select the people most like themselves. Established academics decide whether to name individuals on grant applications. Grant holders decide whether to release funding to allow postdocs to travel to conferences.

      The point is that there is a need for support and patronage for researchers to prove their abilities and potential. There are large numbers of occasions in a career when biases – intentional or accidental – can have critical consequences.

      Those comments above are from somebody who succeeded in academia and therefore thinks the system does work at some level. I, as someone who did not succeed and who feels I failed because of lack of opportunity, believe the academic careers system is wholly broken. It is massively over-competitive and does not give talented people the ability to take the actions themselves to advance their careers, at least not unless they have the luck to be given that freedom by established academics. Biases – unconscious or conscious – actively discriminate against women, ethnic minorities, people from traditional “working-class” backgrounds and a whole range of other people.

      I do not know what happens to limit the promotions of women from readerships to chairs, but it is very clear that there is discrimination against women – and against most men – in junior research careers. Reducing hierarchies and giving talented people more control over their own careers would do a lot to introduce diversity into academia.

      • Bryn,

        I agree with most of your points – I also suggested that one of the main problems is that people employ people that resemble themselves – and this isn’t right.

        I also agree that the academic system needs to change, but I also think it is changing – albeit gradually.

        It is over-competitive but so are most job environments at the moment – this isn’t restricted to academia. This is related to my last point that maybe people/line managers/supervisors should be more honest about what they think is a good avenue for people, or at least highlight where they think the strengths of the person are. If these strengths are more suited to particular areas of astronomy/PDRA-work/Fellowship-position/job outside of astronomy then this needs to be conveyed to the person in question in a way that doesn’t suggest that they aren’t good enough. We all have different skills and we need a variety of skills in academia, otherwise we will always fall into the trap that we have all alluded to in that senior people employ people like themselves.

        If we can get this sentiment across to more people then hopefully it would improve the gender/race imbalance in astronomy, as more people would feel valued for the skills they have rather than the ones that they think they should have as that’s what >50 year old men in senior positions have.

        To be honest if I employed someone like myself I think it would be a disaster for the person under me as it’s likely that not much would get finished!

        cheers

      • “It is over-competitive but so are most job environments at the moment – this isn’t restricted to academia.”

        True. However, at least for well paid jobs, outside of academia one can normally get a permanent position right away, or perhaps after a few months probationary time (which is usually just a formality). The difference is that outside of academia there is competition among employers for the best people so obviously those who don’t offer permanent jobs will lose out. There might be competition in academia among employers as well, but a) most are not in a position to offer permanent jobs and b) the fate of the employer doesn’t depend on hiring good people. (Not that I think it should, in academia; this difference does need to be taken into account, though.)

        “If these strengths are more suited to particular areas of astronomy/PDRA-work/Fellowship-position/job outside of astronomy then this needs to be conveyed to the person in question in a way that doesn’t suggest that they aren’t good enough.”

        Definitely. However, there are still people who are best suited to an academic job, but will never get one. On average, each permanent academic with students will have one student who attains a similar position. That’s one in, say, 35 years. Obviously this depends not only on ability, but in being the right person in the right place at the right time etc (and also on the ability to survive for several years on soft money).

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        However, the academic careers system has some critical features:

        1) Only a small proportion (about 5-8%) of people obtaining PhDs will achieve permanent academic positions. Virtually all others will leave academia, either through choice or career failure.

        2) University departments and research councils are very hierarchical, with junior staff and PhD students often unable themselves to shape their careers, or sometimes to determine their own research success. Career progress and success depend on factors beyond merely the abilities of the junior researchers. These include the opportunities given to them by established academics and the managerial competence of academics.

        3) There is an assumption of a linear career path that all people will follow. This disadvantages people who spend time working on project support or as programmers, and who may consequently have had periods when they did not produce many publications. Time out to have children will selectively affect women. This assumption of a universal career trajectory inevitably produces a strong ageism within the academic career system.

        My view is that these factors, when they operate together, create a career system where luck and patronage are as important as genuine ability. Success usually requires all these in combination. Conversely, prejudices – conscious or unconscious – can cause fatal damage to many careers.

        As an example of biases, I once worked for a grant holder who told me, “I don’t think you’d make a good lecturer: you’re too honest.” He thought academics need to be able to bluff when they are asked searching questions by students. I did become a lecturer (on fixed-term contracts). I think I was seriously good at university teaching, but not because I bluffed, but because I put the effort in to prepare teaching properly. That story is an example of the irrational prejudices many people have to face in academic careers. Women will face their own particular set of unfair biases.

      • “My view is that these factors, when they operate together, create a career system where luck and patronage are as important as genuine ability. Success usually requires all these in combination. Conversely, prejudices – conscious or unconscious – can cause fatal damage to many careers.”

        I’m not sure whom you are replying to, but I agree!

    • “There is a reason that some people don’t have permanent positions at the age of ~40, and it’s rarely (or never in my experience) to do with sex or any other bias against minorities in astronomy.”

      Not directly, but if people with children don’t even apply for jobs because they have to find a non-academic job to survive, the opportunity to experience bias doesn’t even arise. In this case, I would argue that the system is biased, not individuals making decisions (though to some extent they can influence the system—many are simply not aware of such problems, since when they got their job times were different).

      It does vary from country to country and the average age in the UK might be less than elsewhere in Europe. I consider tenure-track positions (which don’t exist everywhere) and long-term fellowships with guaranteed permanent jobs at the end the equivalent of permanent positions. The fact remains that some people don’t get permanent positions until they are 40. I’m assuming that they have earned them—there is certainly no shortage of younger, well qualified applicants. However, some people just can’t afford to spend several years on soft money. In fact, I think I know no-one who a) had children before getting a permanent job and b) who had no other source of income who has been awarded a permanent position in the last 20 years. I’m sure there are some, but fewer than there should be.

      There is a huge bias here, since most people who leave academia don’t look back, for whatever reason. Once at a Moriond conference I was discussing this with a Very Famous Astronomer who looked around during dinner and said—and this is almost an exact quote—“where are all these people who don’t manage to stay on in academia”. I think astronomers especially should be aware of bias—in this case, a different type, to be sure; obviously people attending the conference are not a fair sample of all who have been in academia at some time. His argument was that as long as the best applicant gets the job one can’t complain. Even assuming that’s the case, I think it would be better for world astronomy if no-one is forced to leave the field for financial reasons. I’m not talking about people who want to be rich; they wouldn’t study astronomy in the first place. Even if people make 3 or 4 times a professor’s salary in business or industry, that doesn’t mean that they would have needed that much to stay in academia; 30 per cent more is usually enough. If that—in many cases it’s not the low pay but the insecurity. Yes, the geniuses know that they will eventually get a permanent job, but that is the minority.

      “The other problem with your argument that there should be more permanent and fewer fixed-term positions is that Universities generally pay the salaries of permanent staff whereas as postdocs are funded on grants from a variety of sources. Universities cannot afford to bankroll way more people on permanent contracts – which is a commitment of ~30-40 years.”

      Sure. My point is that governments should shift money from agencies funding soft-money jobs to universities so that they can hire more permanent staff.

      “Maybe supervisors/line managers should just be more honest about how good they think the student/postdoc is and tell them that leaving astronomy is a good and viable option for them, rather than convey the sentiment that if you leave then you are a failure.”

      I agree. Even if all jobs are awarded solely on the basis of ability, obviously there isn’t a huge difference between the worst person to have a job and the best person who doesn’t. Also, of course, a monotonic ordering on the basis of ability might not be possible, there are uncertainties in assessment etc.

      I think one thing the astronomical community could do is to stop giving the impression that there are two classes of people: those in academia and cranks. (Those who leave academia and don’t look back are off the radar.) I haven’t had an academic job in a while, but still follow my field, occasionally go to conferences, write the occasional paper etc. Not long ago, I considered attending a conference but, as is often the case, “institute” was a required field on their web form for registration. I sent an email and asked if I could attend nevertheless (paying full fee and hence probably subsidizing some of those poor young academics getting a student discount or whatever). I didn’t even get a reply. It doesn’t matter if this was an intentional snub or if they aren’t organized enough so that the proper people read the emails. It is arrogant buffoonery of this sort which does create the impression that people who have left the field are failures. Some of the conferences organizers might even be reading this blog. You know who you are. 😐 (Sometimes, one can be creative with the “institute” field. Last summer, I met Martin Walker at a GR conference in Prague. He used to work at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, with Ehlers (and edited at least one “Texas Symposium” proceedings), then left to work for DEC/Compaq/HP (a VMS man like myself). (IIRC, he left academia after getting a permanent job. To each his own.) In the “institute” field, he put “retired relativist”, so this showed up on his badge after his name. That’s fine. I’ve also used obvious “placeholders” in some contexts where it couldn’t be avoided. But if this is used in some other context, it might create the impression that one is committing some sort of fraud (certainly crackpots often have their own “institutes” they associate themselves with). He didn’t give a talk; I did. I had an empty “institute” field on my badge (either it wasn’t a required field or I got it sorted via email—as at last year’s Moriond conference, at least with some people this can be an interesting talking point). One certainly doesn’t want to be introduced by some chairman who doesn’t know one personally who fills in the blank with his standard introduction and reinforces the impression that one is trying to pass oneself off as something better (or at least someone with an institute). How difficult can it be to make “institute” an optional field on the registration form and have a separate form for the badge, where the defaults are taken from the name, institute, country etc from the registration but can be tailored to taste? I realize that this might be oversight, not intent, in many cases. Still, the fact that such an oversight takes place shows how rigid the thinking is—it isn’t even considered that someone without an institutional affiliation might want to attend. On a similar note, some otherwise well respected journals don’t even consider papers from people without an affiliation. (Whether this is an official policy or not doesn’t matter if it happens in practice.) Fortunately, there are enough journals who don’t have a problem with this, but again this illustrates the arrogance involved. (I don’t buy the argument that it is a filter to avoid overloading the editor with crackpot submissions. It takes at most a few seconds to recognize a crackpot submission.))

      • Philip: Oh Sh*t. Just catching up on these posts and am feeling ultra guilty. Am now recalling that a colleague forwarded to me 2 emails from you on March 14 (I found them again a few minutes ago) from the Ripples in the Cosmos email address. There you said you were interested in attending the conference but there were institute fields that didnt apply to you. I ACCEPT FULL RESPONSIBILITY FOR NOT REPLYING TO YOUR EMAILS. (Unfortunately this probably also identifies me as the one personally responsible for lack of women in Physics, poor career prospects for PhD students, unethical lecturing techniques etc etc!) But as a fully paid up crank myself I dont think what happened to you has anything to do with that particular bias. Indeed when your name was mentioned, I confirmed to unnamed colleague that you were a very worthy attendee with recent refereed papers in MN that I had read etc! But then due to my incompetence I failed to reply to the forwarded emails.

        There is no real case for the defence but if there was it might go like this:

        a) Your email was complicated in that it mainly complained about the fields we had on the registration page webform. Those web pages are run externally for us by university conference organisers subcontracting to the computer dept. It took weeks talking to those folks to get close to what we wanted. Certainly the option of changing fields was not attractive at that point!

        If you want to attend a conference my advice is just fill in whatever is there (we dont run checks on institute etc). Even just fill in the talk proposal page and we would have got back to you eventually to register properly.

        b) March 14 is the last frantic week of term here and right in the middle of various telescope deadlines. WIth about 1000 hrs of teaching last year while trying to keep research going (including a conference) means that it is easy to put off and then accidentally overlook replies to emails. I suppose I thought you might fill in the forms anyway. Maybe everyone in academia being so darned busy is also a good explanation for many of the other problems discussed above too.

        Anyway enough of the excuses. We have signed up 170 participants for Ripples in 10 days time but there is still room for one or two more including yourself. Let me say here that we can waive your registration fee and if you need any help with accommodation or even travel just let me know – directly at tom.shanks@durham.ac.uk

        If you sign up on the talk proposal page then we will see what the SOC say….

        I just hope its not too late that we can still organise your attendance at this conference!

      • “But as a fully paid up crank myself I dont think what happened to you has anything to do with that particular bias.”

        Just catching up here—I was at the DPG school last week listening to (among others) Peter’s lectures and yesterday and today was enjoying the good weather with the family. I’ve since exchanged some emails with Tom (my email is on my VMS cluster at home; with no SSH or TELNET access from the school, I didn’t reply to any emails, but through a back door could see new emails received, including one from Tom, so I made a point to reply soon after I returned; after the school I drove up to Cologne for a Neil Young concert, so didn’t get back until early Saturday morning) and this has been cleared up now. I just want to thank Tom publicly for his public admission of guilt. (I didn’t mention the conference in my comment, but Tom correctly guessed it.)

        In this case, the registration was being handled by an external agency. That does make it more difficult to solve problems like “unnecessarily required field in the web form” quickly. I’m also glad that in this case it was this and human error which led to the problem, rather than intentional bias against non-institute folks. I suspect that is true in the majority of cases. (However, making the institute a required field in the first place does show some bias.) However, this becomes clear only after the fact in most cases, if at all. The problem is, the person interested in attending doesn’t know the reason, and if he can’t register then he usually moves on. An unanswered email is of course difficult to interpret; it could have been just forgotten. However, if one does want to keep certain folks out, the easiest way is not to answer emails.

        In this particular case, I couldn’t just fill in what I thought necessary since the required fields, if blank, cause the script processing the form to reject it.

        I understand that one wants to make sure the registrant has entered all relevant information. For all future conferences, I suggest the following: have “institute” as a required field, but have an associated button, not selected by default, which, when selected, would override the “institute” field. This would allow one to leave the institute field blank and at the same time be sure that any empty fields were intentionally left blank, not out of oversight.

        (Let me note that my original email to the Ripples conference said that I was thinking about attending, but wasn’t sure, mainly due to conflicts in timing with other commitments. In the end, I decided not to go, mainly for other reasons, not because I couldn’t register. I’m sure it will be an interesting conference, but unfortunately I can’t always fit all worthy things into my schedule.)

        As a public service, I suggest that people look at the registration forms for conferences, even ones which they don’t plan to attend. If “institute” is a required field, send an email to the contact address and ask if it is possible to attend if one has no institutional affiliation (and if not why not) and how one should register since the web form won’t be processed without the required fields. In most cases, this is probably not an intentional move to keep people without institutes out, but just an oversight (though, again, an oversight which shows some bias). If this happens enough, maybe things will change. Again, it’s probably not intentional in most cases, but the problem is that one can’t know whether it is intentional or not (and ditto for interpreting the lack of email response).

    • “The other problem with your argument that there should be more permanent and fewer fixed-term positions is that Universities generally pay the salaries of permanent staff whereas as postdocs are funded on grants from a variety of sources. Universities cannot afford to bankroll way more people on permanent contracts – which is a commitment of ~30-40 years.”

      This already is happening though – many postdocs are on permanent contracts due to changes in employment law (you cannot use FTC to employ people for more than 4 years), and I think any University dismissing someone because the grant funding the job ran out will possibly be on rather thin legal ground if challenged in court from what I have read, especially if they only consider that employee for redundancy or they hire someone else 6 months later to do a similar research job (once a job is redundant you cannot just hire someone else to do the job until 2 years have passed I believe)….if thats all true then Universities are going to have change funding models to cope with this situation are they not?

      I know of research groups who simply shift postdocs onto a new project when funding for one drys up, which from what I know of friends in industry is how many companies manage employees too. OTOH I know of groups who deliberately won’t employ postdocs for more than 4 years for the sole reason of stopping them getting a permanent contract.

      • This varies from country to country. The last sentence is certainly true in many countries (though the number of years varies).

        Of course, any position with fixed-term grant funding will have a job description which makes it clear that the job ends with the funding. If it were that easy to get a permanent job (take the university to court when the grant runs out), then more people would have done it. In those cases where this is a real possibility, then the people are booted out in time.

        The idea behind such laws, of course, is to avoid hire-and-fire situations, the idea being that someone who has been on a temporary contract doing a certain job for x years should be on a permanent contract. In principle, I agree with this, even in academia. In practice, it means (at least in some countries) that one cannot spend more than x years at one institute.

      • “and I think any University dismissing someone because the grant funding the job ran out will possibly be on rather thin legal ground if challenged in court from what I have read,”

        Yes but from personal experience I know this is what happens in some universities (and has been for a number of years). I do not know if it has been challenged yet. The university will actively pursue options for re-employment including automatic interviews for similar appointments.

        In terms of having postdoc positions appear within a 2-year time frame after making a postdoc redundant I know one HR representative explains it by saying the jobs are not the same – breaking right down to nitty-gritty of roles and responsibilities to find different wording. I know some PIs like this as it means they are not forced to work with someone in a group who they might not really want to.

  7. “In practice, it means (at least in some countries) that one cannot spend more than x years at one institute.”

    Even in the UK it varies from University to University (possibly even from group to group within a University) though, so it really depends on the attitude of the research group. Some see the benefit of having good people in place on a long term basis, others see it as a very bad thing to do. The argument often seems to be long term contracts prevent new people with fresh ideas coming in, but in my experience even people on permanent contracts do move on anyway for a variety of reasons (bored of academic research and want a new challenge, better job at other uni, spouse moves area etc etc) so its does not prevent this at all.

  8. Monica Grady Says:

    To go back to the original subject of the post. Just scrolled through all the responses, hoping that someone, somewhere, would have mentioned the Athena Swan Charter (http://www.athenaswan.org.uk/) up to which all institutions are encouraged to sign. Many of the comments on this post are issues that are being considered by institutions who have signed the Charter – which include Sussex, as I’m sure Peter is well aware (or if he isn’t he b****y well ought to be, as Head of School…). The Charter is not about positive discrimination, or anything like that. It is about recognising factors that make gender equality difficult, and trying to remove unnecessary hurdles. Whilst most of the factors apply to all sexes, for historical reasons many of them, especially those centred around roles as carers, have a greater effect on the career of women.

    • telescoper Says:

      Monica, I am aware of the Athena Swan remit. Indeed we shall shortly be following up our institutional bronze award with an application for a departmental award and we’ll be putting a number of new things in place to address specific equality and diversity issues. My hope is that these will not only help in tackling gender bias, but also other forms of discrimination, by making the School a much more inclusive workplace.

  9. Bryn Jones Says:

    No. The Athena Swan Charter is just a lot of nice words that give academic leaders the feeling they are doing something, about as much use as the Concordat on Research Careers. Yes, the Charter would have really positive effects if academic leaders vigorously pursued the principles, but that would require fundamental, transformative reforms of the research careers system. Above all, it would require dramatic changes in research council policies.

    The fundamental problem is that 92-95% of people who embark on PhD research in Britain (and many other Western countries) will not get academic positions. Women (and men) with PhDs are disposable as regards their long-term participation in university research. Consequently, most are expected by established academics to leave academic research. That fosters a culture of career failure within university departments, and one which preferentially affects women. The exceptions will be a selected few who are given active encouragement in their careers, because they happen to impress certain academics or when an established academic sees benefit in supporting somebody with the right skills for their own research.

    The rot introduced by this broken career system corrupts the whole academic careers system. It maintains an under-representation of women in permanent academic positions (women are excluded in a slightly higher proportion than men), which in turn disadvantages the status, participation and promotion of women at more senior levels.

    The Athena Swan Charter is too gentle, too moderate. What is needed is a complete overhaul of the academic careers system, to reduce the mad imbalance between the numbers of PhD students and the number of long-term positions, to free talented people to take control of their careers and to compete on equal terms, and to allow for diversity in people’s careers paths. These reforms apply both to women and men. Without them there will be no equal opportunities for women (or for men either).

  10. Bryn Jones Says:

    Incidentally, I don’t think anybody mentioned the new House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology inquiry on Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Careers.

    The deadline for formal written evidence is 3 September 2013.

  11. Franziska Batten-Zaunig Says:

    Dear Prof. Coles, in light of this diskussion I thought you might enjoy this blog-post. The link-description sums it up nicely:
    http://whatwouldkingleonidasdo.tumblr.com/post/54989171152/how-i-discovered-gender-discrimination

    I know it’s a bit late but reading this reminded me of your post.

    All the best,
    Franziska

  12. […] doesn’t seem very long ago at all that I announced the promotion of its first ever female Professor of Physics in the Department, Prof. Antonella de Santo. In fact it was in July last year. Well, just before the Easter break I […]

  13. […] of Physics at the University of Sussex and I’m glad to say she was promoted to a Chair during my watch as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, at Sussex. That was about four years ago, so it has taken a while to arrange her inaugural […]

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