Equality in the Science Workplace: Lessons From Dystopia

White Coats at Dawn by Dr Jenny Rohn

In Christina Dalcher’s latest novel Vox (no major spoilers below), a recognizably Trump-era United States has been taken over by the Pure Movement, which is essentially its current Religious Right dialled up to eleven.

Under this regime, women’s freedom is completely removed: they can’t work, use computers or phones or access reading materials. They have to do all the ‘womanly’ chores, such as the shopping, cleaning, child-rearing and cooking, with no help from their male family members. And they have a daily spoken word quota of one hundred, enforced by a metal bracelet that issues an increasingly powerful electric shock. It’s not just for women; the bracelet goes on female children as well. Step out of line – disobedience, adultery, a spot of gossip – and you will find yourself being publicly humiliated then sent to some Midwestern gulag for a life of hard labour.

There are a few inconvenient consequences, such as home-cooked meals of dubious quality (the poor ladies aren’t even allowed to use cookbooks), and a slumping economy due to half of the workforce being wiped out in one sweep. But by and large, this is a small price to pay for the quiet life, so the powers that be are pretty chuffed with their new system. So what if very young female children start showing signs of permanent language deficiency – in retrospect, isn’t this just an added bonus?

Dalcher’s protagonist Jean is a kick-ass scientist, a world expert on Wernicke’s Area, the part of the brain that controls the comprehension of language. Disorders in this locus can cause aphasia – the scrambling of heard and spoken words into an incomprehensible mess. So when the President’s brother suffers a brain injury, Jean gets to take off her apron – and her nasty bracelet – to join a crack lab team assembled by the government to discover a cure. When she arrives for her first day, she finds that she and two other experts have been saddled with a boss called Morgan, the mediocre researcher in her former department who couldn’t experiment his way out of a paper bag. The role of this man, we soon see, is to lord it over the others and take all of the credit while doing none of the thinking.

At this point, I – and maybe other female scientist readers – started to experience an uneasy sense of familiarity. In a career where half of the PhD intake has been sex-balanced for a generation or more, the academic biomedical sciences is still largely run by men. In the UK, about 80% of the biology professoriat is male. This 80% consists not only of academics lingering on from older generations; it includes a hefty proportion of younger men recently inducted. Men also predominate amongst department heads, deans and vice-chancellors. Numerous carefully conducted studies show that excellent women are routinely passed over in short-listing, hiring, promotion, and in various showcasing exercises such as keynote speeches, due to unconscious biases about what a ‘real” scientist looks like. The inevitable result is departments where it is not uncommon for women of extraordinary talent, if they don’t drop out altogether, to remain junior, while men of rather ordinary caliber move up the ladder. And how does such a man succeed? By surrounding himself with a great team of researchers, of course – roughly half of whom are women.

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Last week, University of Oregon psychology professor Jennifer Freyd lost her appeal in a case questioning the right of her home department to pay her massively less than the male professors with the same job description. It transpires that the reason the men were earning more was mostly because they courted higher job offers and then essentially blackmailed their departments to match this pay to retain them. Apparently this is common practice not only in the States but here in the UK as well (where I am told it goes by the euphemism of “market forces”).

What are we to make of, and do about, this sorry state of affairs? Can it really be right that the only way to get paid equal to men is to waste your own, and a lot of other people’s, valuable time, pretending you want a different job so that your department will offer you a raise to stay? Does this mean that women ought to step up and start being more aggressive and inconsiderate, bluffing their way to equal pay too?

Professor Jennifer Freyd (Image from University of Oregon)

This sort of idea is anathema in modern “equality and diversity” circles. And I know what I’m talking about, having been the chair, for the past four years, of the Athena SWAN committee in my division, one of the largest divisions in the largest university in the UK. In our attempts to establish a level playing field, we are strongly encouraged by the prevailing wisdom to try to fix “the system”, but roundly discouraged from “fixing the woman”. Hence, mandating unconscious bias training for all people involved in hiring and promotion? Good. Coaching women to be more assertive? Bad. I am quite sure that if I proposed a workshop on the guerilla tactics of getting a raise by applying for lots of outside jobs, I’d be shown a red card.

But what’s the alterative? People have known about unconscious bias for decades, and lots of training sessions, along with a raft of other well-meaning initiatives, have been attempted. But has anything really changed? When I was a new PhD candidate back in the early Nineties (in a gender-even cohort), I was told to sit tight: now that the pipeline is 50/50, one of the few female professors assured us, equality will trickle up to the top in no time. Fast-forward three decades later, and essentially nothing has changed with those professoriat ratios. Nothing. How long should female scientists sit back and trust that “the system” will change for the better? How many brilliant female scientists will crash out of the system because the one permanent job on offer went to a less-qualified male competitor?

I won’t give away the plot, but in Dalcher’s novel, Jean ended up acting in a very un-ladylike manner to try to escape her fate. It got me to wondering just how un-ladylike women in science would have to act to speed up the glacial pace of achieving equality at the workplace.

The answer just didn’t sit comfortably with me. And that, in essence, might be the real problem.

Dr Jenny Rohn is a practising cell biologist at University College London. She is also a writer, broadcaster and novelist. She has written three novels, the latest being Cat Zero, released in mid 2018. She was a regular contributor to the Occam’s Corner blog at The Guardian and was a co-founder of the Science is Vital group. She is on Twitter at @JennyRohn.

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