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Gender Equality in the School of Natural Sciences

Athena SWAN

Frequently asked questions


Is gender inequality really a problem in the School of Natural Sciences?

Yes! Although we have more female students than male students this flips as soon as you hit the faculty level. The numbers are mirrored by how people feel within the School; the initial stages of the INTEGER project involved consultations with many members of staff, both male and female, all of whom identified many major areas for improvement. These included making meeting times more family friendly, changing the culture of the School from "workaholic" to "work-life balance", and generally being friendlier and more integrated.

Won't these problems just fix themselves over time?

No! Many people look at the current numbers of female postdocs and junior faculty and assume that given enough time these women will become full professors and the problem will be fixed. Unfortunately people have been trying to fix this problem since the 1970s with little success (see Nancy Hopkins' work on gender bias at MIT). The reasons for this failure are that academia is still designed with (straight, white) men in mind. Postdocs are still crucial points in an academic career, but they also coincide with child-rearing years making it hard for women to continue and have a family. The academic culture is still very competitive which puts many women off. And women are still less likely to put themselves forward for promotion, and less likely to gain promotion when they apply. Unless we make changes, factors like these will continue to impede the advancement of women.

Why just focus on women? What about other minorities?

We recognise that women are not the only under-represented group at TCD, and ideally we'd like to tackle this as well. However, we have to start somewhere and, given that women represent 50% of the population, dealing with gender bias seems like a good place to start. Additionally many of the changes we hope to make will be beneficial to everyone, and changing the straight-white-male dominated culture of academia will help all minorities in the long term.

There are very few women in my field, so forcing me to select women as examiners or seminar speakers is unfair and mis-represents my field to students.

Firstly, there is a strange perception bias about women in science that makes everyone (men and women) believe there are fewer women than there really are. Secondly, even if you only selected women for a 15 session seminar series this only requires you to think of 15 women. It would be surprising to find any field where there were fewer than 15 women in total! Often the names that first come to mind are men, but challenge yourself to think about it for a little longer and we expect you'll find more women than you realised. Finally, even if you over-represent the actual number of women in your field, you can justify this by remembering that everything we do for gender equality is actually being done for the next generation of scientists. Instead of moaning, we should embrace it as an optimistic view of how things will be in the future!

Does this mean TCD will be preferentially hiring women? This seems unfair!

No. Irish law forbids positive discrimination, i.e., the hiring of a woman over a man solely to obtain gender balance. What we are encouraging is positive action to encourage more women to apply for jobs. The way job adverts are worded can unintentionally put women off applying for jobs, and all male interview panels can create an intimidating atmosphere making it hard for women to perform to the best of their ability. If we can fix these problems then we can be assured that we get the best person for the job, no matter what their gender.

I'm a man and I'd like to promote gender equality but I'm not sure how...

That's excellent, thank you! The INTEGER team is made up of both women and men, and we're really glad to have your support. It can be tricky to understand the problems women (and other minorities) experience, so I would first suggest reading this list of male privileges. This is a list of things that men often don't realise are privileges, but once you do understand them it's much easier to discuss gender bias. For example, as a man if you are bad at maths no-one will say all men are bad at maths, however, this is what we (both men and women) do to women. Once you've done this, start trying to be more conscious of gender when you choose seminar speakers, referees, external examiners, interview candidates etc. You don't have to always choose a woman, but at least try to think of some women you could include. It's all of our responsibilities to fix this for future generations of scientists.

If you have other questions you'd like added to these FAQs please email ncooper[at]tcd.ie


Last updated 28 February 2014 Natural Sciences (Email).