Women in HE Conference 2020

The Women in HE Conference 2020 took place in London on the 23rd of January. Its aim being to discuss barriers that make possible that women are still largely underrepresented at senior levels in academia. Whilst the last decade has seen an increase of gender equality,  the pace of change is problematic to the point that could even make the progress seen so far to recede.
Several are still the issues that make women to either leave their careers or that keep the large majority in support roles, fixed-term contracts and in lower salary bands. Despite an increase of men working part-time, a recent study (Powell, 2018) established that 41% of women in employment were working part-time in 2018. The proportion of men working part-time climbed from around 7% in 1992 to 13% in 2010 and has remained at a similar level since.

There are many aspects to diversity and equality, and the conference addressed some that are causing much detriment to women and a loss to the sector. Violence in the form of bullying and harassment is still prevalent. Some news are alarming, such as that UK universities have spent nearly £90m on payoffs to staff that come with “gagging orders”, which seems to indicate that victims of misconduct at higher education institutions are being silenced, according to an article in The Guardian newspaper.

Jenny Garrett, one of the panelists invited to the conference who could not attend, writes that "for every bully who is caught, an incredible 10 times as many victims lose their jobs through transfers, layoffs, termination, or handed in their notice". Although it is in the best interests of a university to eliminate bullies because they cause increased staff turnover and sick leave, few have an effective anti-bullying policy, one that really works in practice. In 2018, Prof Venki Ramakrishnan, the president of the Royal Society, called for an overhaul of workplace practices, saying bullying had become ingrained in the culture of too many academic institutions.

There were two panel sessions, and it illustrates the relevance of this issue that one of them was focusing on the need to change the culture by tackling sexual misconduct, harassment and violence in the workplace. The other panel focused on women's leadership, the glass cliff and work-life balance.

As for the workshops, one was on collaborating with and including men. Its underlying tenet being that it is important to have male gender allies, and to develop a common understanding of the existing challenges to equality. From this perspective, one could argue that it could have been a good idea to make this conference open also to men, who were strikingly absent, both as panelists and as attendees. 

The other two workshops focused on women onto committees and boards and on demystifying gender pay.

The Q&A made apparent that the attention given to working flexibly is confused with the attention that working part-time, -and its implications- should receive in its own right, as these two are not at all the same thing. 

The evidence of the lack of attention to the topic of part-time working is revealed even in the composition of Athena Swan working groups, where part-time women tend to be absent and have no voice to represent them. One of the reasons is that part-time working women experience constraints to their time and availability that make it difficult for them to attend meetings, which also add to their workload. If Athena working groups could embody more thoroughly in their practices the principles of inclusion they are trying to spear-head, membership to a working group should not be subject to physical attendance to meetings. Contributions to working groups could be done in different flexible forms, and it could be a point of Athena Swan working groups to model the feasibility of alternative ways of collaborating.

Both Athena Swan and the Aurora Programme were acknowledged as having contributed to positive change in academia. Alison Johns, Advance HE CEO spoke of how Aurora is empowering and encouraging for women.

Nearly 6,000 women from more than 175 institutions have attended Aurora. It has been established that Aurorans are twice as likely to be promoted than those who have not participated in the programme. Although this is great news and clear evidence that affirmative action works, questions regarding the transparency in the selection process and the criteria for selecting some women and not others into the programme remain unaddressed. This is particularly significant, as not being selected or put forward by a line manager seems to imply that the likelihood for promotion is twice less likely. In connection to issues concerning part-time working women, there was no information as for whether any among the 6,000 that attended Aurora worked part-time. There are indications that full-time working women are prioritised over part-time ones, compounding the difficulties that part-time working women have in advancing in their careers.

Alison Johns also pointed at the fact that the picture is even bleaker from the BAME perspective. "We can see that opportunities for black and ethic minorities are fewer from the outset and reduced even more markedly, particularly for women". As if to underline her words, it was noticeable at the conference that there were only very few attendees that could be adscribed to the BAME category.

Listening to the speakers and engaging in conversations with different delegates from academic institutions across the UK, made blatantly clear that there is indeed a lot of work that still needs to be done. The diversity and talent of all members of staff can only be utilised when the structural and cultural hurdles are overcome. The evidence says that this has not happened yet.


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