Wednesday, 10 October 2007

WISER - Shouldn't We Be?

"There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities...with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. ...the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described." Remarks from a speech given by Larry Summers, former President of Harvard University, at the NBER Conference in January 2005.

Although the above-mentioned speech ultimately led to Summers resignation, these sentiments are often shared by many people when attempting to explain the lack of women in high level positions. But rather than focusing on the reasons for the disparity, the first debate of the WISER Festival considered four possible alternatives for promoting women and subsequently increasing the percentage of women in academia. Prof. Janneke Gerards, a professor in constitutional and administrative law at Leiden University, proposed that 40% of scientific board and committee members should be women. She argued that more female representation will not only give alternative perspectives but also result in less gender bias when making decisions. Prof. Mineke Bosch, an associate professor in gender studies at the University of Maastricht, suggested that women should be made more visible by promoting them through collaborations, conferences and communication. Prof. Renate Loll, a professor of theoretical physics at Utrecht University, argued that we should raise our expectations of what women can achieve - 'believe in yourself, and all things are possible.' Prof. Yvonne Benschop, a professor of organisational behaviour at Radboud University Nijmegen, proposed that there should be a national mission for 'gender mainstreaming' by breaking down the 'ivory tower'. The festival participants were asked to vote on which proposition they preferred, with the initial count being in favour of Prof. Gerards. Many participants believed that if there was greater representation of women on boards and committees, then the other propositions would follow. This sparked further debating among the panel members and festival participants, where it was suggested that it is difficult to implement quotas. There was also strong support for 'crumbling the ivory tower' by making changes to the system. However, it was also argued that this requires one to already be in the system in order to be able to make such changes. Towards the end of the session, a second vote was cast, with the numbers then in favour of Prof. Bosch's proposal of creating visibility. This certainly requires less of a paradigm shift, but who is going to promote women? Overall, it was concluded that in one way or another, each of these propositions needs to be addressed in order to have greater representation of women in high level positions. The reasons for the lack of female academics may be multifaceted, but it is also apparent that there is no simple solution for changing the situation either.


Alphast said...

This is all nice and good, but I am affraid it could miss a major issue of the Dutch psychology: in the Netherlands, a woman who wants to have children receives massive social pressure (from family, friends, colleagues) to stop working full time. Very similarly to the German "Rabbe Muther" syndrome, women who don't spend at least one of her working days per week with her children is considered a bad mother. Positions of responsibility are seen by most people as ones you can only fill in properly by working full time. For this reason, most women will not go for higher positions or worse, will abandon them, when deciding to have kids. I have seen this happening here many times. And the thing is it is so buried into the mentality that the decision is taken by the women themselves, even when the pressure is absent... :-(

Hayley said...

What you say is very true, and I intend to post more about such issues soon.