Andrew Brooks (IMB, UQ) and Andrew Siebel (Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute)
We all agree that gender equality in the scientific workplace is an extremely important goal that we should be working towards achieving. There are many articles that discuss the gender bias (in favour of males) in the science research workplace and this is particularly prevalent the further along in career progression. There are many obstacles for progression in the science research/academic career and many of these are shared for women and men.
Overwhelmingly, the articles that discuss career progression of women in science highlight that typically, the biggest obstacle to career progression is the career disruption from starting a family occurring at the most important time when they are establishing their independent research career. There have been several policy changes that have helped address this situation. It is now well accepted (including in grant/fellowship applications) that career disruption for women starting a family is an important consideration whereby women should not be penalised. There are also numerous awards/grants specifically targeted to women to help them return to successful careers after starting a family, which are excellent schemes. No one should disagree that these are important initiatives. However, we would like to suggest an alternative approach for long term cultural change which would lead to a greater respect and understanding of the impact in career disruption due to starting a family.
We believe that this cultural change may be more effectively achieved by increasing support and recognition of men. This may sound counterintuitive, but we think there is good reason for this proposal. We think a better long term culture change can be achieved by encouraging men to increase the amount of parental leave taken and greater recognition for men to have a legitimate career disruption when starting a family. If more men share this time away from their careers with their partners, then this will help women who have children by not only reducing their time away from their work but also create a generation where men have experienced this break in their careers and better understand the impact that having children can have on mothers’ careers. There are policies already that allow this, for example, at The University of Queensland (UQ) if both parents are working at UQ the parental leave after childbirth can be shared between the two parents. UQ employees are entitled to 6 months full pay which is often taken as 12 months at 50% pay. It is possible for the mother to take 6 months and then the father to take 6 months.
We expect that there are many men that would want to do this, however we think that many fear taking this time away from their research because it is not commonly accepted in the culture, i.e. there is little recognition for men taking this leave and break from their research careers, while it is currently very well accepted for women to have this disruption to their careers. We should encourage shared parental leave (like the example at UQ) to be the standard and there should be encouragement for men to take on a significant portion of this leave to create a generation of scientists where both men and women have had a significant career break/disruption due to starting a family. This greater understanding of the impact of families should also lead to improvements in family friendly workplace polices, such as reasonable meetings times and flexible work hours.
With the aim of achieving gender equity in the scientific workplace there have been many important and helpful policies introduced. However, there should be great caution in polices used to try to improve gender equality in the workplace as there are some caveats to policies that may appear to be giving gender equality, but instead result in discrimination against one gender and will lead to reduced respect for another gender in the workplace. For example, there would be cases where the percentage of applicants for various grants, schemes, faculty/group leader positions where there is unequal gender split of applicants. Does this mean we should always be striving for a 50/50 gender split of successful applications? For instance, if 80% of applications were female, should we make it harder for the women with a 50/50 gender policy? If the situation was reversed should the same be true? The same can be said about panels, where you do not want a situation where someone is treated with a lack of respect because they are considered as the token female (or male if the situation is reversed).
The ultimate goal should be a workplace where there is equal respect and the impact of families on career establishment is well understood and respected by both genders. Ultimately, gender should not be an issue and commitments to family responsibilities should be understood and respected by all and there should be a culture of respect between all genders.