The Strategic Academic Leadership Initiative Begins

I was caught on the hop this morning by the formal announcement that twenty new professorships for women have been created in Ireland. I hadn’t expected this announcement to come so quickly since the idea was only floated in November 2018. There is a piece in the Irish Times about today’s announcement here.

I blogged about this scheme here when it was announced, a little over a year ago. The appointments are to be in areas where there is “clear evidence” of significant under-representation of women, such as physics, computer science and engineering.

I’m delighted that two of these new positions will be at Maynooth University, one in Computer Science and one in Physical Geography (in the area of Climate Science). These areas were selected as being of particularly high strategic priority.

The 20 new Chairs represent the first tranche of positions out of 45 planned under the Strategic Academic Leadership Initiative. I understand there will be two further rounds. I do hope that we might get a position in physics at Maynooth in a subsequent round. I note however that there will be a Professorship in Theoretical Physics at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. I’ll be sure to pass on the advertisement here when it appears.

Reactions to this scheme among people I know have been very varied, so it seems a good topic on which to have a simplistically binary poll:

For the record, I should state that although I had reservations when about this scheme when it was first announced, largely due to lack of detail about how it was to be implemented, I am now very enthusiastic about it and hope it is successful in its aims.

I will however also repeat that this initiative should not distract attention away from the need for Irish higher education institutions to have much better promotion procedures; see, e.g. here. There are plenty of female academics at lecturer level in Irish universities, but they seem to face serious difficulties getting promoted to Professorships.

21 Responses to “The Strategic Academic Leadership Initiative Begins”

  1. I think a simple binary poll is more likely to confuse the issue than anything else. Some people will take one look at “women-only professorships” and vote on whether they approve or disapprove of that. Others will look at the detail of the scheme and vote it up or down depending on whether there would be better way of doing it, and/or better uses for the same amount of money. Yet others will ask why disciplines that have failed to promote women are being rewarded with more funding. And other still will look at the way government policy is evolving towards increased performance-based funding – starving third-level of cash, and then using the power of the purse to push third-level in the policy direction government currently wants (which in this instance is towards gender equality, but in others will be about quite different things). I’m really not sure what you think the poll result will tell you.

  2. There is some technical problem with the third link.

  3. At the recent Texas Symposium in Portsmouth, there was a session in diversity. The main problem was that those who needed to be there weren’t. As such, it was more “I know that I am biased; help me to correct this” rather than “how can we eradicate all lack of equal opportunity in the system”. I remarked that in some places the height-pay-gap is larger than the gender-pay-gap (i.e., studies have shown a strong, significant correlation between salary levels (where, of course, the salary is negotiable) and height, but hardly anyone seems aware of this. To their credit, after some initial laughter, I think that I manage to convince some people to look into this. But I have never seen an announcement “in the interest of increasing diversity, short candidates are especially welcome to apply”.

    From the career of Margaret Burbidge (taken from Wikipedia): [I]n 1972 she turned down the Annie J. Cannon Award of the American Astronomical Society because it was awarded to women only: “It is high time that discrimination in favor of, as well as against, women in professional life be removed”. Twelve years later the Society awarded her its highest honor, regardless of gender, the Henry Norris Russell Lectureship..

    IF, and that’s a big “if”, one believes that there should equal outcome with regard to gender in certain jobs (whether or not the lack of equal outcome is due to equal opportunity, and willing to risk denying promotion to better candidates who themselves are not misogynists), should this apply to all groups: sexual orientation, skin colour, hair colour, eye colour, height, ethnicity—i.e., the percentages must be the same as in the general population? Should it apply to all jobs? If not, why not?

    “A 2004 study by psychologist Timothy A. Judge, Ph.D., of the University of Florida, and researcher Daniel M. Cable, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina, found that every inch of height amounts to a salary increase of about $789 per year (the study controlled for gender, weight and age).

    By this calculation, someone who is 6 feet tall earns $5,525 more annually than someone who is 5 feet, 6 inches. Over the course of a career, of course, those numbers can really add up.”


    (That’s from the first of Google’s 1,600,000 hits for “salary height correlation”.)

    • telescoper Says:

      From what I’ve seen of the way psychologists do their statistics I think some scepticism would be in order.

      • In that case, we should be sceptical of psychologists who claim, based on statistical evidence, that there is discrimination on the basis of gender, or sexual preference, or skin colour.

        In all cases, one can objectively gather facts, and there is certainly a correlation between height and salary. The cause is another question, but it seems reasonable, from an evolutionary-psychological point of view, that paying big people more would result in more safety for oneself. In contrast to most other types of discrimination, in most cases this is probably neither conscious nor on purpose, but for that reason it is probably more difficult to eradicate.

      • telescoper Says:

        There’s no link to an actual paper in the piece you included. I’d like to know how the sample was selected, what size it was, how confounding factors were eliminated, etc etc, before being convinced that there’s any correlation.

      • Here is one: (open access!)

        Googling “height salary correlation refereed journal paper” finds some things, many open-access as well.

        The truth is out there. 😉

        Interestingly, on the day of the diversity session, the three of the women who had given talks that morning were all tall, at least one taller than I am (178 cm), not that I am claiming that this extremely small sample is in any way significant nor immune from the look-elsewhere effect (though, admittedly, it’s too easy to overlook short people).

    • I remember an Architect when asked to propose economies in the construction of a new Primary School suggested it be built, the children being small, with low ceilings; with only short teachers to be employed…

  4. Russian human spacecraft have traditionally been smaller than US ones – they felt that there was a sufficiently large pool of candidate cosmonauts that designing for a 6ft6″ crew member was unnecessary expenditure so a height limit would still provide excellent results – and certainly the ones I have met have been much shorter than the typical American astronaut…

  5. I am in favour. We should aim for parity and do so sooner rather than later. But there may be easier ways to achieve equality. The gender ratio varies dramatically per research area and funding scheme. A large fraction of new academic appointments in UK astronomy still comes in from STFC or ERC grants/fellowships. The STFC fellowship scheme became as biassed as 87% male at one point (it improved later). A way to move faster to parity is to stop accepting applicants from significantly biassed schemes. The second way is to limit growth in research areas where the gender balance is lacking. These two policies could help more than a single round of two professorships per institution.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      What does “biased as 87%” mean? That 87% were male? At the very least, that has to be weighted with the imbalance among applicants. One can, of course, argue that it is the job of those higher up to correct the problems of those lower down, but others argue that this exacerbates the problem.

      Another problem is discriminating against a group (say, old straight white men) because, historically, such a group was favoured by discrimination. Two wrongs don’t make a right. One might argue that a particular person who has benefitted from privilege take a back seat, but how can that rationally be extended to someone just because he is a member of the same group? (In other contexts, judging people not as individuals but on the basis of what group they belong to is known as racism.)

      Another assumption is that biases against women, and against people of certain racial and/or ethnic backgrounds, are OK to combat, but what about other things? Surely the rationale is not equality per se, but some sort of compensation for past (or present, or perhaps future) injustice. But other people have other problems. Speaking for myself, I’ve had cancer three times and two of my four children are handicapped, none of which was in any way under my influence, voluntary or not. Has that had a bigger effect on my career than the problems experienced by, say, a queer woman of colour? Maybe. But mentioning such things on a job application leads to accusations of courting sympathy. (After all, I’m an old straight white dude, so by definition I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth and my entire life has been a smooth sailing life of luxury.)

      You also seem to be assuming that equal opportunity must lead to equality and, by the same token, that if lack of equality is observed, then it must be due to lack of equal opportunity. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The point is, no-one can prove it. Hence the best strategy is to make equal opportunity the highest priority. Nothing is as important in a civilized society. If this doesn’t lead to equality, fine. If you believe that all inequality is based on lack of equal opportunity, then the best thing that you can do is to support equal opportunity.

      Also, why concentrate on astrophysics, or physics, or STEM, or whatever. It is very difficult to find any field where the distribution of different groups is the same as in the general population. Is all this inequality due to discrimination? I don’t know. But it seems more credible to demand the same policies for all fields, i.e. each and every field (however defined; could be a profession, or a political party, or whatever) must have all groups represented at the same level as in the general population (which implies having more men in fields now dominated by women).

      Then there are women who have benefitted from the fact that they are women. I remember reading an interview with a well known female astronomer who was asked the question how being a woman had influenced her career; she said that it had probably helped her. Her argument was that there are few women in the field (even fewer than now when she was young) so, assuming that she otherwise made a good impression, which she did, she probably remained lodged in people’s memory more than a man who otherwise made the same impression, was just as qualified, etc.

      Then there is the fact that women hired due to some affirmative-action programme have to face the accusation that, based on their abilities, they wouldn’t have been hired.

      In summary, affirmative action probably creates more problems than it solves. The best strategy is to support equal opportunity, at all levels, with no ifs, ands, or buts. Any effort spent on affirmative action or even analyzing the current situation is probably better spent on increasing equal opportunity.

      Sometimes the skewness of priorities is amazing. On the other side of the pond, there is perhaps not more discussion of equality, but let’s just say that it is not always rational. People plead for all sorts of affirmative action, representation of all groups everywhere, etc. But the biggest stumbling blocks on the road to inequality in the USA are probably the cost of higher education and the lack of universal health care. As such, some of the discussion appears to me like someone painting the railing on the Titanic after it had already started sinking.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        For some reason, this link doesn’t work for me directly, but searching for it on Google returns the PDF file as the only hit:

        To quote from Elizabeth Griffin’s letter on page 2: “I believe that the correct time to remove positive discriminatory measures can best be judged by the victims as a group, rather than by the bystanders.” Otherwise, she makes an important point which I have otherwise never heard raised in such discussions. (Readers of The Observatory will recognize Elizabeth Griffin as one of the regular book reviewers.)

        In this debate, I feel in good company with Elizabeth Griffin and Margaret Burbidge. 🙂

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        The well known astronomer mentioned above is Ewine F. van Dishoeck:

        SIAA: Do you feel it was more difficult for you to get a job or a promotion in comparison with male astronomers?
        ED: No, I personally only felt it as an advantage to be a woman throughout my career. In my country, there are very few women in physical sciences so professors remember you much more readily if you are a woman, especially if you do well in classes. My colleagues have also been very supportive throughout the rest of my career, in putting me forward to get prestigious grants and creating a position in an interdisciplinary field (astrochemistry).

        Of course, it is not a contradiction that if there are few members of a group in some field, then the members of that group who do, for whatever reason, stick it out might do better than the group as a whole.

        It’s a complicated issue and there are no simple solutions, but the best solution is probably to put all effort into increasing equal opportunity, which is really a hallmark of civilization itself.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Recommended reading: short interviews with women in astronomy, where one will find a wide range of answers. For example, Catherine Cesarsky:

        She is an Astronomer: What stage in your career have you reached?

        Catherine Cesarsky: I am currently High Commissioner for Atomic Energy in France, which is a governmental position.

        SIAA: What is the most senior position that you have held?

        CC: I was the President of the International Astronomical Union from 2006-2009 and Director General of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) from 1999-2007.

        SIAA: Do you feel it was more difficult for you to get a job or a promotion in comparison with male astronomers?

        CC: No

        SIAA: What is the biggest challenge you have faced as an astronomer?

        CC: Juggling career and family.

        SIAA: What is your family status?

        CC: Married with two children.

        SIAA: Have you had any career breaks?

        CC: No.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        Of course, such a list is not representative; after all, it is “she is an astronomer”, not “she was an astronomer”. (Real story: a senior astronomer once doubted my obvious claim that many people leave the field involuntarily. He looked around the room where the conference dinner was being held and said “I don’t see any”. At first, I thought that it was some sort of joke, but then I realized that he was severely deluded. One would think that, of all people, an astronomer should know something about selection effects.) Also, perhaps not everyone asked agreed to be interviewed. Experience varies from country to country. And so on.

        Also interesting: a similar list in connection with the Galaxy Zoo project, which illustrates the, shall we say, diverse range of experience:

        In a summary of the question “What (if any) do you think are the main barriers to women’s involvement in Astronomy?” the first remark is “Here there was a lot of disagreement”.

        There was some agreement on one point, though:

        From the younger members of the professional astronomers there was really good news in a generally positive feeling that the days of really strong barriers/discrimination are over. Anna (a Masters student) told us that “A female office mate and I were discussing how we don’t think there have been any obstacles for us”, Manda (a recent PhD recipient) says; “I don’t think astronomy is any longer a male dominated subject” and that “today [the many barriers which were around 10-20 years ago are] much less of an issue”, Carie (another recent PhD recipient) says that “I’ve never personally felt any discrimination as a female Astronomer,” and Kate (who recently left professional astronomy after completing her PhD and a first post doctoral position says: “I was always given enormous encouragement from my peers and never felt discriminated against.”. We even hear that (again from Anna) “A male office mate brought up that he believes it is easier to be a woman than a man in astronomy”.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:

        To summarize: equal opportunity, for all groups, in all fields, is probably the single most important thing one should support if one wants to improve the world.

        As for other measures (intended) to improve the status of women in astrononomy: some women in astronomy claim that they should make those decisions, not members of other groups; some claim that, for the current young generation, there are no barriers; some claim that they have benefitted from being women. Others (men and women) will disagree with all of these. As such, not even rational, liberal, sensible people (such as the readers of this blog) will be able to agree on a strategy. So why not concentrate our efforts on increasing equal opportunity, which no sensible person can oppose? If inequality is the result of the lack of equal opportunity, then this is the best way to solve that problem. (And if it is not, then affirmative action has another argument against it.)

        There is a parallel to the trolley problem in relation to self-driving cars. Some have pointed out that, however one wants to implement a solution to the trolley problem in the software of self-driving cars, many, many more lives have been lost due to discussing this and not implementing any decision than would result from implementing even the worst software solution. Similarly, if all effort with regart to equality were put into the advancement of equal opportunity, for all groups, in all fields, at all levels, this would be the most efficient use of resources.

      • If your diversity is negatively affected by one of the routes into academia, that route does not have equal opportunity (do note this was 7 years ago and things have improved since in that scheme). By using that route to fill academic position, you are party to discrimination. That should be recognized. I would also point out that you quote top scientists, of Nobel quality level. The problems are with the more typical scientists. We should be encouraging women who may not feel themselves to be at that level. The feeling persists that women have to perform better than men in order to get the same level of recognition. That is a discouragement.

      • “If your diversity is negatively affected by one of the routes into academia, that route does not have equal opportunity (do note this was 7 years ago and things have improved since in that scheme). By using that route to fill academic position, you are party to discrimination.”

        In some sense, perhaps. On the other hand, is trying to correct for this later on to be preferred to correcting the root of the problem? Also, those who were really adversely affected are no longer in the field, hence not applying for jobs, promotions, etc. Of course, one could do both. The question is whether trying to correct one injustice with another injustice is the right way to go.

        “I would also point out that you quote top scientists, of Nobel quality level.”

        Not all of them. 😐

        “The problems are with the more typical scientists. We should be encouraging women who may not feel themselves to be at that level. The feeling persists that women have to perform better than men in order to get the same level of recognition. That is a discouragement.”

        Even assuming that the feeling persists, does it reflect reality? I’m not saying that it doesn’t, only pointing out that the conclusions are not automatic, just as lack of equality does not automatically imply that it was caused by lack of equal opportunity.

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