Gender, “The Voice” and Athena SWAN in 2016

Over the last few years I have had the privilege of being a member of my department’s Athena SWAN committee.  Before going on the committee I thought I was aware of gender equality issues in the workplace but the discussions we have around the committee table have opened my eyes to the problems and what we can all do as individuals to make a difference.

The consequence of having my eyes opened leads me to notice situations and behaviour outside work that I probably would not have done before.

So, what am I leading up to?  I don’t usually watch talent shows, but I am a big fan of the singing talent show “The Voice” which is shown at the moment on Saturday evening on BBC1.  Why?  Well, in general the contestants are all phenomenally good at what they do.  Also, I like the format of the show where the four high profile “coaches” listen to performances in special rotating chairs with their backs to the singer and only turn their chairs around if they like what they hear.  If more than one coach turns, then the contestant can choose which coach’s team they would prefer to join.   So, the principle is that the contestants, at least in the first round, are only chosen on what they sound like, not their appearance.

Last week was the second round of the show where pairs of contestants “battle” by singing duets and after the song, only one in each pair is selected to stay.  By this stage in the competition “stage presence” starts to make a difference since the coaches can see the contestants.  During the show last week, I was struck by differences in the way the male and female coaches and the show hosts spoke about the various contestant pairs.  In particular, one pair was two young men who did a fantastic performance of their song.  In the first round the female coach had been very vocal about how attractive she found them both.  When the female host came on stage after the performance, she remarked on how “nice (hot)” it was to be on the stage at the moment (with these two attractive men), and later asked the coaches “…can you feel the level of testosterone…”.  After the female coach had commented on the winner’s looks again, the host commented “…just so you all know, even his hair smells nice…”.

I wondered how long the male host on the show would have kept his job if he had made similar comments about female contestants?  Or indeed, how long a male coach would last on the show if he made such strong innuendo-led comments as the female coach did.  It seemed to me that there was quite a gender bias in what was acceptable behaviour on prime-time UK TV.

A possibly extreme way to look at it is The Voice is a kind of job interview.  Here were two guys in a stressful interview being sniffed by one of the company staff who made a point of showing she was aroused by them, while the interviewer made comments about their sexual attractiveness.  I wonder how comfortable the two guys were about all this – they seemed OK, but what else could they do in a competition situation?  The assumption is that men will always like and be flattered by the attention of women, but this is clearly just as wrong an assumption as if the genders were reversed.

I might not have bothered to write this blog if it had not been for something else that happened this week.  I visited an office about a work thing and while I was in the all-female office, I noticed a postcard sized photo of a naked man by one of the desks.  It was a very tasteful picture of a classically beautiful body from behind of a man with a sandy bottom.  It was a nice photo, but when I saw it I said something about it because I was surprised to see it at all in the workplace. The folk in the office were a bit embarrassed by the photo, but it turned out to “…belong to someone else who used to be here…” and “…we should really take that down…”.  This reminded me of my reaction to the Voice the previous week so I mentioned this to them.  We all agreed that currently what was acceptable for a female to say or do to a male in public was quite different to what was acceptable the other way around.  One comment from the females was: “…well, when a woman does it, it is just a bit of fun…”  I wonder where I have heard that before?!

So this brings me back to Athena SWAN and workplace equality.   The Athena SWAN application process is all about showing how, as an organisation you have recognised gender issues and put procedures in place as a result that help equality.   So for example, last year we shifted the time of all our major seminars to earlier in the day (from 16:00) so they and the after-seminar receptions could be attended by people with carer responsibilities.  For individuals, one message is that you should think about what you say or do to judge whether it might make someone else uncomfortable.  This is probably good advice for life generally, but especially in the workplace.   While some things like the blatant innuendos on the Voice last week might be obvious to avoid, others may be subtle.  Some phrase, expression or behaviour you have had since childhood could be perfectly acceptable to one person but deeply offensive to another.  Likewise, relaxed conversation and humour amongst friends after work might be completely inappropriate around a committee table or other workplace situation.    It is up to us, if we are offended by something, to say so straight away.  Often, when pointed out, the perpetrator will be horrified to discover what they thought was quite innocent behaviour was not seen that way.  Other times of course, people will be baffled as to why you are upset.  Whether people are baffled or understanding of a behaviour depends on what is acceptable in wider society and thankfully that is changing continuously for the better.

 

Advertisements

On the subject of minorities…

A fun lecture…

A few months ago I spent an enjoyable hour or so listening to one of my fellow Professors in Life Sciences giving a seminar in our Athena SWAN programme.  It set me thinking about broader issues of inequality in research, so I thought I would write something about this before I forgot!   I’ll get to the computational biology bit at the end…

Athena SWAN for those who don’t know is run by the UK Government and originally had a charter that says:

Recognising commitment to advancing women’s careers in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) employment in higher education and research.

In 2015, it was merged with other equality schemes across the Arts and Social Sciences.  You can read more about Athena SWAN on the Equality Challenge Unit’s website (www.ecu.ac.uk), but the principle is that Universities and University Departments can apply for Bronze, Silver or Gold status in Athena SWAN.  The process of meeting the demands of these different levels requires a lot of inward looking by institutions about how inequality is handled in the institution and what is being done to help address it.   This in my view is a very good thing – being on the Athena SWAN committee for our department has certainly helped raise my own awareness of the issues.

Leaky pipeline and the Petrie Multiplier

As our speaker reminded us in her talk, the big problem in STEMM subjects across UK higher education is that there is a “leaky pipeline” where the proportion of women at each level of seniority drops.  The department I work in is fairly typical of life sciences departments in that there are more female undergraduate students than male (about 60% female) this drops to 55% at Ph.D. student level, then down to 45% at postdoc.  However, by the time you get to Principal Investigator (Independent Research Fellow, Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader, Professor) women are down to about 20%.   Clearly, this kind of gender inequality is true across the whole of our society in many professions and there are multiple reasons for it that I won’t discuss here.

The talk was very entertaining.  It took us from her early life through various high and low points in life and career.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that she had been the victim of sexism at times, what horrified me more was that even today, she experienced this in various ways from peers in science.    She had discovered the best way to deal with it if you did not have a good “come back comment at the time” was not to agonise or get angry, but just to accept that some people are just jerks (my word not hers) and move on.  I don’t know if this is the best strategy or not, but our speaker then introduced us to the “Petrie Multiplier” which is described in detail in Ian Gent’s excellent blog post and how this had made her realise that a large part of what she experienced was dominated by the effect of being in a minority rather than any particular personal targeting.

 

petrie80.svg
Petrie Multiplier Diagram

 

Although focused on gender inequality, the principle of the multiplier is general.    It says if you have a crowd of people made up of two groups where one group is in the majority, say 5 to 1, and a fixed percentage of each group (say 10%) discriminate against members of the other group, then if you are in the smaller group, the likelihood that you will be the victim of discrimination is proportional to the square of the ratio between the groups.   Thus, in the case of a 5 to 1 ratio like this, if you are in the smaller group, you are 25 times more likely to be discriminated against than someone in the majority group.

I chose 5:1 as the ratio since that is the ratio of male to female PIs at my institution, but clearly, minority groups exist everywhere. Although it is a very simple model, the Petrie Multiplier helps to explain (but not justify) why it is exceptionally hard for any minority to get their voice heard.  Even a small amount of bias from members of the majority leads to a big perceived effect on the minority.

Computational Biology…

Minorities occur in science all the time!  Scientists all know how hard it can be to get new ideas or ways of working accepted against accepted dogma.  This was (and possibly still is) true of the field of computational biology/bioinformatics.  In the 1980s and 90s, people who thought of new ways to analyse data, spent their time analysing existing datasets rather than generating new ones or who developed novel computational methods, were in a tiny minority of biologists.  There was scepticism and lack of understanding from the majority of biologists whose careers had grown up without the need for deep knowledge of computing.  As a consequence, getting funding to do computational research in biology was difficult.

So, are things better now for Computational Biology? There is certainly broad understanding of the need for computational skills in interpreting data.   However, the majority of biological scientists are still experimentalists whose research focuses on specific biological questions.  As a consequence, funding programmes are nearly always linked to the creation of new data sets rather than reflection on how to make new use of data that is already there or to enhance methodology.

This bias can make it difficult for scientists trying to start their independent career who are driven by methods development rather than the desire to probe a specific biological question.  However, I am optimistic that as the ratio of scientists with expertise and understanding of computing increases in our community, it will become easier for the next generation of innovative method developers to forge their careers in this exciting era for our science.