The Silver Lining of Gender Equity – Best Practices and Policies in Action

Tim Wess
Professor Tim Wess – Executive Dean of Science at Charles Sturt University.

Professor Tim Wess FRSA FSB FRSNSW is Executive Dean at Charles Sturt University. Before relocating to Australia Tim held senior roles at a number of leading UK universities including Cardiff University. When not working or cycling to work, he likes to study language especially minority ones from places he has lived. Tim now lives in Wagga Wagga NSW with his family and is studying Wiradjuri the Aboriginal language of the Riverina.

“Please, please don’t tell me that’s how we do it?” I asked my director of teaching when I came back from my first Athena SWAN meeting at Cardiff University. I’d been invited to be part of the University wide application for the Bronze level award of the charter and had been hearing from other staff a series of stories that showed unintentional or benign gender inequality staffing activity in everyday work at the University. These activities can bring about unfair practice that on the surface might seem quite minor but actually can have a very large impact on somebody’s career and the institutional culture. The one that had left me cold, shocked and underwhelmed was the way in which staff going on maternity leave in certain schools had to ‘earn the right’ to go on maternity leave by “touting” out the lectures that they were supposed to give during their time of maternity leave. Then, worse still, on their return would be given back any lectures that the person, who had taken over their lectures, didn’t want to give any more. A race to the bottom, people returning from maternity leave could end up with the ‘crappiest’ jobs. That’s why, when returning to my school I asked whether this was what was going on in my school (it wasn’t).

I realised however, that benign neglect in policy development/implementation was probably one of the biggest factors in stacking the odds against people having young families or going on maternity leave. It was also the simple things such as the timing of meetings that meant people with families and caring responsibilities were denied access to the decision making fora. As a new Head in 2007, I had inherited a culture where ‘macho’ 7AM research meetings were the norm. Augmented with ….”Let’s finish this in the pub after work”…. Not surprisingly this left some staff disenfranchised. Before I joined the school, one of the staff members had turned up with a hot water bottle round her neck dressed in pyjamas and dressing gown to make a point, however this was seen as comic rather than genuine protest against a cultural practice that excluded the sane and those wanting a legitimate work life balance.

Going for Silver

The University achieved the Bronze award and going forward, it was decided that my school would be the best candidate to apply for a Silver award; another School had already tried twice so we had a good idea of what failure looked like, but not success. We went to Bristol to meet staff at a school that had gained the Silver charter award and developed a mentoring arrangement with staff at York who at that time were Gold level awardees. A central part of gaining the charter is that a gender balanced steering committee (with leadership from the senior executive) for the entity is formed to work on a reflective self-review and plan the way forward with objectives that are SMART. What was revealing is that it’s only after self-assessment that you realise where the issues are in your own institution.

Looking at the school, there was a reasonable gender balance in staffing, however we had evolved to be quite ‘the norm’ in that female staff members occupied the more junior positions; there were some female senior staff , but probably not enough. When we really went and looked at responsibility in the School, all of the “housekeeping jobs” tended to be serviced by females and those which are perceived to be “influential” were filled by the boys. I didn’t really see it this way, until this was pointed out to me by the PVC for staff and equality. To get on the school research committee you have to have a “good” research track record and there’s nothing to disrupt your smooth research track record like having a family.

Looking at other Athena SWAN applications, we were able to define what was good practice, such as developing well-structured committee meeting timetables for the school calendar (and sticking to them). Some staff members who loved cancelling meetings – as a tactic to get their own way – “Nobody here? Oh dear…. “ found that this behaviour wasn’t tolerated. People with childcare could plan ahead and we also provided baby-feeding-and-changing facilities in the building. Don’t let me give the impression that this was plain sailing; the school contained staff who resisted every time a female of child bearing age was hired. In fact on my departure one staff member declared I had employed “too many” young women. Quite what “too” means was his value judgment, I just employed the best candidates and made adjustments for them when necessary. Females leaving academia because the job doesn’t adjust for them over some time is local short-termism and ultimately uneconomical.

The Flow-on Benefits of Action

Going back to my initial concern about how we redistributed teaching, I was able to meet with and guarantee staff that when they returned from maternity leave, they would return to the same job, with the same teaching load and lectures, in the same office. All the horror stories of “whilst you were out we decided…..” were met with reassurance (that we then lived up to). As a man, I really could not pretend to understand the emotions that female staff were going through during maternity. Leaving their colleagues, (letting them down?) taking maternity leave and then returning to work and leaving the family (letting them down?) and of course by interrupting their career (letting themselves down?). It seems that giving a reassurance that didn’t pile on more guilt was essential. Personally welcoming a staff member back from leave was also an important aspect, so that they didn’t feel they just crawled back into the workplace. At first staff thought they were coming to my office to be told that their job was altered/doubled/had evaporated, but soon the word went round that it was all good. All in all, it made for a workplace that was more tolerant of families, better structured and a better place to be.

Ahead of the Wave

Achieving the Silver award in 2010 meant that we were the first school in Wales to do this. Many people didn’t really understand what we had done and some staff were indifferent to it. In 2012, an announcement was made by Dame Sally Davies that in order to obtain funding from the research arm of the National Health Service (NIHR), the Silver award had to be gained. Reader, at that point everything changed. I was invited to talk to Schools, Colleges, Faculties and Universities from Scotland to Devon with quite a few venues in between (even Prague). An interesting pattern in all of this, was that the audience was either almost exclusively female or contained only a few men. We helped a number of other organisations produce vibrant charter applications and made them look inside themselves and realise that they were not too squeaky clean in terms of gender equity as they thought. Joining the national panel was the next step and taking some of this work into research infrastructure is in Europe was the last part I did before moving to Australia.

Gender Equity Down Under

On arrival in Australia, I realised that there was no strong gender equity equivalent to Athena SWAN. I then met the lead scientist of Victoria, Leonie Walsh, who just visited the equality quality challenge unit in the UK and I was told that there was a move by the Australian Academy of Science to introduce something similar in Australia – the Science in Australia Gender Equity Forum. I’m delighted to be part of the campaign going forwards and showing people what we managed to achieve in the UK and how taking certain practical steps we began to get sticky change of the change a culture in an organisation. My legacy for my former institution? Well my successor is a female head of school (first ever), the gender balance of the senior management has improved significantly and the school goes from strength to strength in terms of teaching and research. I’m glad to say that “too many females” are still there.

The Science in Australia Gender Equity Forum holds its first national workshop to discuss an Athena SWAN-like initiative in Australia next week in Canberra. Tim Wess will be presenting.

Related posts: Women in Science: Closing the Gender Gap


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