What does gender equality mean for women researchers in the 21st century?

Cambridge University summit highlights challenges in chasing the still-elusive goals of equal representation and equal pay

The theme of gender inequality seems to evoke a certain sense of resistance from both men and women, who argue against “radical feminism” and suggest that women nowadays are empowered to follow whatever career path they choose and succeed on their merits.

The battle, in other words, has been won.

Indeed, as a woman enjoying the successful pursuit of my career of choice, it felt strange to be in a room with some of the most outstanding female researchers in the world to discuss how difficult it still is for a woman to progress in her academic career compared to her male counterparts.

Elsevier Connect Contributor

Alice Atkinson-BonasioAlice Atkinson-Bonasio (@alicebonasio) is PR and Communications Manager for Mendeley, a London-based research collaboration platform that has been part of Elsevier since 2013. She holds an MA in creative and media enterprises from the University of Warwick and is completing a PhD in online marketing at Bournemouth University.

Yet here we were, the day after International Women’s Day in 2015, listening to the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, Prof. Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, declare that unequal representation and pay disparity were very much still an issue, not least in his own institution. He is, however, passionately committed that his tenure will bring positive change, vowing “not to rest until the issue of equal pay is tackled.”

This commitment was the catalyst for Delivering Equality: Women and Success — a summit that brought together top-level representatives from over 75 higher education institutions, nonprofits, industry, and government at the University of Cambridge’s Murray Edwards College to cultivate a conversation about how to make higher education more inclusive.

The Cambridge Equality Collaboration, known as  C=C, was supported by the Elsevier Foundation in enabling this conversation: “What sets this program apart is that it’s transparent and very strategic in the way it looks to boost impact across its many initiatives,” explained Foundation Program Director Ylann Schemm. “By holding this seminar, they are also opening their doors to peers, sharing their due diligence and soul searching – a process that isn’t always comfortable but sets an important precedent.” The <em>Delivering Equality: Women and Success</em> summit brought together top-level representatives from over 75 higher education institutions, nonprofits, industry and government at the University of Cambridge to talk about about how to make higher education more inclusive.

Some of the many burning questions that emerged from those conversations were:

  • How can we create environments that attract and develop talented women, as well as men, throughout all levels of our institutions?
  • To what extent are we genuinely committed to becoming more inclusive?
  • How can we define, measure and reward success more effectively?
  • How can we reframe the debate away from “women’s issues” to talk about effective, modern workplaces?
  • What policies, procedures, training, metrics and systems can we improve in order to accelerate progress?
  • How can we encourage the emergence of more diverse, visible role models and senior leaders progressing change in academia?

Jennifer Saul, PhDCambridge Pro-Vice-Chancellor Prof. Jeremy Sanders explained that the summit aimed to increase the impact and influence of the university’s 2014 The Meaning of Success: Insights from Women at Cambridge project. This was achieved by having conversations about making higher education more inclusive and encouraging senior leaders and role models from the sector to share their own challenges and experiences in making this a reality.

The experiences that emerged from the day’s workshops were enlightening, yet they also highlighted how far we still need to go to achieve that goal. Tales of the obstacles that face women during the course of their academic careers brought wry smiles of recognition to many faces (one researcher told of being questioned by her annoyed boss as to why she was not harassing him for promotion as all her male colleagues did), and prompted disbelief and laughter (such as the example of a reference letter recommending a female candidate as “attractive,” “friendly” and being “a friend of my wife”).

Dr. Jennifer Saul, Head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield, led the discussion on “unconscious bias,” which showcased the above examples and explored how such biases are often sharply contrasted with genuinely held beliefs and principles, yet still managed to get through due to a very human tendency to make quick associations and follow established paths. She illustrated this reality through various examples:

  • The “CV test” — where the same set of qualifications is ranked lower when coupled with a female name as compared to a male one.
  • The simple ruse of showing near-identical pictures of mixed gender groups and asking them to identify who might be the leader of the group. Most people identify the man at the head of the table as the group leader, whereas very few believe the woman in the second picture is in such a position of leadership.

In her presentation, Prof. Jennifer Saul showed that when people are shown similar pictures of mixed gender groups, they tend to assume the male is the leader.Furthermore, the aforementioned sampling of letters of reference revealed a propensity to use adjectives such as “outstanding” when referring to men while women were much more likely to be labelled as “trying hard.”

In letters of reference, women tend to be described in different terms than men, Prof. Jennifer Saul showed in her presentation.

Here is Dr. Saul's full slide presentation:

You can also watch one of Dr. Sauls’ presentations on gender bias in this video:

By forcing delegates to confront such stories, the event encouraged them to take another look at their workplace and the world around them, and to question inequalities that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. And I don’t believe that it was a coincidence that following my own attendance of the summit I found myself constantly finding examples of why the equality battle has most definitely not been won.

Supporters of the Cambridge Equality Collaboration’s Delivering Equality: Women and Success Summit ( left to right): Professor Simonetta Manfredi, Oxford Brookes University; Professor David Grayson CBE, Chairman of Careers UK and Director of Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility, Cranfield University School of Management; Ylann Schemm, Elsevier Foundation Program Director; Prof. Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor, University of Cambridge; Antoinette Jackson, Chief Executive, Cambridge City Council; Professor Morten Huse, BI Norwegian Business School; Professor Judith Lieu, Professor of Divinity and Gender Equality Champion, University of Cambridge; Professor Jeremy Sanders CBE, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Institutional Affairs, University of Cambridge (Photo courtesy of University of Cambridge)In fact, it often seems that hard-fought ground is being clawed back. While waiting for my train at the Cambridge station, I spotted a newspaper poster announcing the story of a paediatrician who had been locked out of the female changing rooms at her gym because their automated system was programmed to assume that anybody with the title of doctor was male. Browsing through Twitter, I marvelled at the widespread social media outrage when LEGO — a company noted for pioneering non-gendered toys — decided to use its magazine to offer “beauty tips” to girls as young as 5.

A recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research stated that at current rates, we will not see equal pay for women in the US before the year 2058. This brings to mind the hilariously insightful musings on the subject by comedian (and Cambridge Alumnus) John Oliver, who suggests that since American women currently get paid 83 cents on the dollar compared to their male colleagues, employers should make their choice clear by using a special currency called “Ladybucks.”

Later on I attended a talk by Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow at the Cambridge Union Society, where he recounted why, when seeking expert commentators for stories, they were often stuck with male ones regardless of his wish to have equal representation:

What happens is this: you ring up a female economist and ask her about this current issue, which they’ll know about, but they’ll tell you that it’s not exactly their area of expertise, so they will decline to participate. You ring up a male economist and they’ll tell you that it’s not exactly their area of expertise, but what time do we want them to be there? Men are just much more willing to bullshit.

The resonance of Jon Snow’s account with the experiences I had just heard of female academics who got passed up for promotion in favour of male colleagues who tended to be pushier and more willing to put themselves forward was proof that it’s still worth taking notice of where we fail to achieve equality.

Catherine O'HaraAfter the summit, Catherine O’Hara, Executive Publisher for international radiology and oncology journals at Elsevier, said it was a privilege to have the opportunity to share ideas and experiences with people such as the former University of Cambridge Gender Equality Champion Professor Dame Athene Donald.

It made me consider how we, in our role as scientific publishers, can positively contribute to the change that needs to occur to bring about equality in the world of academia and research. Beyond the Elsevier Foundation’s programs, I believe we can do this by examining our own recruitment of editorial boards, family friendly policies at Elsevier conferences and to ensure more robust science by embedding a gender dimension in the peer review process.

The next step, which the Cambridge Summit hopes to move us towards, is to come up with a plan of action that will eventually shift that balance and create a true meritocracy in academia. And that is surely still a battle worth fighting.

The Elsevier Foundation and the Cambridge Equality Collaboration (C=C)

Elsevier FoundationUniversity of CambridgeIn 2014, the Elsevier Foundation awarded a 2-year grant to the Cambridge Equality Collaboration (C=C), whose ambitious goal was to align different initiatives into a comprehensive program with lasting potential to advance women in STEM. These initiatives included the expansion of a leadership development program and research into the transition from early career researcher to tenure, in a bid to fix what is known as the “leaky pipeline,” which sees promising female professionals face such obstacles to career progression that they end up leaving it altogether.

To address the attrition rate of talented women scientists. the Elsevier Foundation’s New Scholars program has contributed over $2.2 million to more than 40 projects since 2006.

Mendeley's Women in Stem video seriesMendeley’s Women in STEM video series

My own interactions with the 4 million strong Mendeley community is full of inspirational examples of female scientists, researchers and academics, many of who have joined our advisor program and become ambassadors for the brand. We are also lucky to have fantastic women working in, and often leading, pretty much every team at Mendeley, which is something to be proud of in the still male-dominated world of tech.

That was the inspiration behind our Women in STEM video series, where we wanted to inspire and encourage young women considering science and technology career paths by showcasing success stories from Mendeley, Elsevier and the broader research and tech community.

This is a theme that persistently emerged during the summit’s discussions — that in order to foster equality, we need to ensure that women get recognition for the excellent work they do, often silently, and that they share their experiences with others who might be facing similar challenges. We hope initiatives like these videos help, and we welcome nominations in the comments below for inspiring women to take part in future videos!

Key takeaways from the 2015 Delivering Equality summit

  • The Meaning of Success: Challenging the myth of meritocracy and improving the way we recognise and reward all valued contributions
  • Mechanisms to support work and family life balance
  • Addressing unconscious bias, particularly in recruitment and promotion

Some achievements from the summit:

  • Significant gathering of leaders from higher education and business with a shared focus (including a significant proportion of men)
  • Proposed collation of best practices for wider dissemination
  • Call for more universities to sign up to the 30% Club establishing sector-wide networks for continued gender equality discussions

Resource page:

The Meaning of Success: Insights from Women at Cambridge


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