Saturday, 8 October 2016

Lady training


The Athena SWAN truck rolls-on. Along with colleagues, I'm co-leading our Faculty application for a Silver Award that is due to be submitted next April. If we are awarded it, we might be the first social science department to have such an award, which we will be very proud of, but will also be in the fullest knowledge that there will still be a lot of work to do to make my Faculty a more inclusive place.

Anyway, why the title - well, a criticism I have heard of Athena SWAN action plans has been that they use Aurora Leadership Training as a solution to everything. Most Athena SWAN gender audits correctly identify stuff we already know, but put concrete numbers on it: women are under-represented at higher grades in universities, are much less likely to apply for promotion and are also less likely to get it when they do apply.

The logic of leadership training as an action is that, firstly, the role descriptors for academics at Senior Lecturer and Professorial level include lots of leadership stuff - you have to have demonstrated you have done this to get the promotion. Secondly, the training is also predicated on improving the assertiveness of women in actually doing things like going for promotion in the first place. This is all very laudable, and I am sure evidence exists that it makes a difference.

Yet it troubles me. I apply my policy analysis brain to it, specifically work on problem definition and causal stories, and note that this presents women themselves as the problem in their own advancement. If women were more like men in their leadership and assertiveness, then they would do better within patriarchal bureaucracies. The only "solution" applied to men is often unconscious bias training. But, as a colleague pointed out, it's great knowing you've got unconscious bias, but it's very difficult to do much about it.

This got me thinking as to what else you might do, more systematically and structurally, to tackle such problems: blinding advancement and promotions processes, for example. The fact many women are sent on the Aurora training also led me to consider whether I needed leadership training - I've suddenly found myself, as a mid-career-academic (gulp) with a lot of leadership roles, including around equality and diversity. I noted that the Leadership Foundation in Higher Education do such a course - Transition to Leadership.**

The logic I've now followed is that maybe this is a bit of the answer: we need inclusive leadership. having an interest in issues of gender rights in higher education I have specifically trained myself and changed my behaviour in the following small ways:

  • I make sure I am not the first person to ask a question in a Q&A session and will wait a long time before doing so to provide more space to women (I also sometimes keep a gender count of the questionners on Twitter);
  • I put my hand up to ask to speak in meetings;
  • I try to not speak over people, or raise my voice or be too assertive;
  • I call-out Mrs Triggs moments when I see them, and call myself out on it when I do it;
  • I have refused to speak on an all-male panels;
  • I've become very active in Athena SWAN processes and encourage other men to do the same as feminist allies.
This has not come naturally. I've been brought-up a man with the confidence that this is my world. I have all this in-built behaviour that was given to me by patriarchal society and conditioning. I know I'm not perfect in my behaviour either, but I do my best. I'd hope as I develop as a leader then the sorts of inclusive practices I do would grow in number. 

The sort of behaviour change I'm describing here could be delivered through wider leadership training - perhaps the Transition to Leadership course does do this; it's not clear from the website. In sum, it seems an inclusive leadership training course for men would actually place the responsibility for sorting out the problem where it lies - on men who recreate the structures of patriarchy in their everyday actions. This seems a much better way of delivering the outcomes we want than blaming women from the structural inequalities they face. 

*or at least it's trying to be,
** this was after a bit of internal "oh isn't it so awful to to be a man" grumbling about the fact I couldn't access the Aurora programme.

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