Women and Leadership: Being the only man in the room

16 Sep

This post was written by James Lush, the Biochemical Society’s Policy Officer.

Earlier this week, I attended a fascinating conference on Women and Leadership.This was held for the first time at Oxford Brookes University, comprising discussions around closing the gender gap with many distinguished speakers. These included Jacqui Smith (Britain’s first Female Home Secretary), Sara Thornton (Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police), Shami Chakrabarti (Director of Liberty) and Colonel Marian Lauder MBE of the British Army. It also included 137 female delegates, and me!

Never has my opinion been asked so many times. “You’re a man, what do you think?” With the conference ostensibly aimed at women (with no male speakers on the roster) it was interesting that the key message that came out was that to achieve equality, we need to change organisational cultures, and “change the men”. This is a phrase I heard several times, referring to the need for the ideology of the individuals at the top – almost exclusively male majorities – to be altered.

Whilst the majority of the discussion centred on the world of business, supplemented with other sessions involving high-profile speakers, parallels with science and research were apparent. In the very first session, Professor Susan Vinnicombe talked of the leaky pipeline with respect to management, law and accounting. This phrase is regularly used in relation to science, referring to female attrition in organisations as you look further through career progression. The Biochemical Society has looked at this in detail in the biosciences in its report ‘The Molecular Bioscience PhD and Women’s Retention: A Survey and Comparison with Chemistry’, produced in conjunction with the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, and the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2008. There has also been some discussion of this in Times Higher Education last week. Professor Vinnicombe highlighted that in law and accounting (as in the biosciences), female graduates outnumber males, but this does not translate to increasing numbers of women making it to board level. However, over the next two days the general consensus that emerged was that gender balance should be rectified because of the moral imperative, not the business case set out in Lord Davies’ report ‘Women on boards’.

Personally I found it interesting that the organisers chose not to invite any male speakers. One delegate who was looking at applying for Athena SWAN Charter recognition for her department told me that she had been asked to invite ‘enlightened men’ to an internal meeting on the subject. I personally hope these sentiments miss the point. But what was clear from the discussions I heard over the two days was that in order to address the gender imbalance we need to look at de-masculinising how organisations work. Here were some solutions that were proposed:

  • Rethinking the criteria which are really most desirable in leaders, the assessment processes used to choose them, and the attitudes of assessors
  • Giving in-depth thought to job design – are ‘core hours’ at work really necessary? Could full-time positions be shared (and not just secretarial positions)?
  • Actively enforcing quotas and all-women shortlists for promotion or appointment (at the conference, quotas were often rejected as ‘tokenistic’, however, on all-women shortlists opinions were more mixed)
  • Not looking in the obvious places and with the traditional criteria for impressive individuals.

Clearly these are focussed at the business sector and whether these could translate practically to the laboratory is another matter.  Regretfully there were no sessions geared towards science and I will be raising this when I give feedback. It would be very interesting to explore whether such open-mindedness would be possible in research, where it is well recognised that job security is poor for a considerable time after graduation, and that working consistently long ‘science hours’ is expected (required?). Furthermore, I am sure that scientists would make an imp0rtant contribution to the wider debate.

On the whole, I found the conference a very interesting personal experience, met some very impressive women, and picked up some interesting thoughts and ideas. However, I was disappointed at the lack of consideration for careers in science.  I wonder if I should expect a similar delegate balance at the forthcoming European Gender Summit?


One Response to “Women and Leadership: Being the only man in the room”

  1. Oliver OHanlon 16/09/2011 at 12:27 #

    Sounds like an eye-opening experience. As you say, interesting that no men were on the panel nor in attendance. It is laudable that these events take place, but surely the contribution from the opposite sex either on the panel or in the audience would have given it a little more

    If an event on women and leadership had been organised with a panel and audience of just men it would be seen as an arrogance on the men’s part. Although the issue is women in leadership roles it is a non sequitur to think that women alone can tackle female gender-bias issues.

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