Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Why men should advocate gender equity

Recently I was asked to speak about gender equity at the Institute for Theory and Computation at Harvard.  I chose to elaborate a theme that has been on my mind lately.  In three brief parts:

I. Why men should advocate gender equity
  1. Women are half the potential talent pool for any organization.   Broadening the talent pool increases the talent.  Conversely, excluding or discouraging women can only weaken an organization whose mission is not exclusionary.  This applies to individual faculty research groups, academic departments, universities and the entire scientific enterprise.
  2. The same practices that improve gender equity improve success and satisfaction for everyone. A good climate for women is a good climate.  Your competitors will be happy to absorb the talent you can't retain.
An example: By working hard to improve the climate and to more effectively recruit women who previously were preferentially declining our offers in favor of the competition, MIT successfully increased the percentage of women graduate students in physics from 13.7% in 2007 to 19.8% in 2013.  We now exceed the national average and our students are better than ever.  This is a good beginning, but significant progress towards full representation requires encouragement and support of women in physics more widely, including at the undergraduate level.

Other reasons I've heard why men should advocate gender equity:
  • It's more fun to have a balanced, diverse group of students and colleagues.
  • Our daughters, sisters, mothers and partners deserve equity.
  • Meritocracy can not tolerate exclusion.
  • It's their job!

II. How men should advocate gender equity

My modest proposal for all leaders, including everyone who supervises students, is to
  1. Listen
  2. Question your assumptions
  3. Don't talk over women or others
  4. Learn from your mistakes
There are lots of details here, including understanding unconscious bias, implementing effective mentoring, and being proactive in recruiting.  However, the first step is to cultivate a desire for self-improvement, with an understanding that your success depends on others' success.  If you are looking for 3 simple steps to gender equity, you're looking the wrong way.  For further ideas, see my article in the January/February 2013 AAS Newsletter.

III. Beyond gender equity

Science flourishes best when everyone has the opportunity to fully participate and the encouragement and support to do their best.  Women are the largest group whose talents are underutilized in science, but they are far from the only ones.  Underrepresented minorities, LBGT scientists, those with disabilities, and others often face challenges that others often do not understand.  Organizations that understand and support them attract and retain talent.

Sometimes there is a perceived conflict between excellence and diversity.  Statements like "We would hire more minorities if we could find qualified ones" often say more about the speaker than about the applicant pool.  Scientists are used to analyzing and solving problems; they can apply their talents to this problem, too.

Diversity without excellence is destitute; excellence without diversity is an orphan.

If we accept this premise, then how can we increase diversity and excellence in academia?  Here are a few ideas:
  • Share the value and excitement of your field to attract more students to science.
  • Tap all available talent; recruit more female and underrepresented minority students.
  • Improve the climate and community of your organization.
A good first step is to conduct a climate survey. The American Physical Society conducts them for physics (and joint physics and astronomy) departments; the American Astronomical Society will soon be announcing a similar effort.  We'll be sharing details soon.

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