Friday, 16 May 2014

How to use a negative experience of harassment to make a positive change

Over the years I have experienced my fair share of harassment, particularly at conferences. I wrote about this some time ago when I was thinking about conference anti-harassment policies and discovered a bunch of great resources online.

This process gave me the chance to think about how these experiences have affected me and other women I know in my field, in terms of how we think about our careers, how we approach networking and our levels of interaction at conferences. I heard stories of women avoiding conferences altogether, or having their careers damaged thanks to improper handling of cases of harassment.

I wanted to use my own negative experiences to affect real, positive change.

The issue of how to implement such a policy is to an extent a 'solved problem' so I wanted to implement the solution in my own field, in order to prevent others in my field experiencing the levels of harassment that I have. I also wanted this to happen so that they know what action to take if they do experience harassment, and what they can expect the outcome to be for the perpetrator.

Today I discovered that the major conference in my field, whose chair I contacted about this issue, subsequently took action. I did chase it up a little over the last six months, but I more-or-less left it in their hands to discuss and see if they agreed that a policy was a good idea.

In discussions with other colleagues I realised that for some people the prevalence of harassment would simply not be believed unless I shared some of my experiences. Some people will be surprised by this, but simply telling a person who has never experienced harassment that it "happens all the time" will not change their view about it one iota. So after seeking out the support and encouragement of my twitter network of amazing women in science, I did share some of my experiences in order to get my point across. As hard as it was to speak up about this, I believed it was important in order to make change happen.

I'll never know how the discussion evolved, but there was a positive outcome. I'm very pleased to say that there is now a public anti-harassment policy on the conference website.

This is a small step in the right direction, but I think it is a significant one. Going onto the GeekFeminism Wiki about anti-harassment and being able to add the name of this conference to the list of those which have adopted a policy felt fantastic.

Making the field of research a better, more welcoming and happier place for all the people working in it is hugely important to me. This is my small success story. By documenting it here on this blog I hope it will serve as a positive example to others.

In the words of one (male) supporter who has been involved in this "let's keep this going!"

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Women in scientific careers - the Government response

This is a guest post by Dr. Jo Barstow
You can continue the conversation on twitter (@drjovian)

The Science and Technology Select Committee published a report back in February, detailing the problems of retaining women in scientific careers. A disproportionate number of women who embark on a career in science choose to leave, and the Select Committee report provides a good summary of possible causes. The committee also came up with a series of sound recommendations for how this problem might be tackled, and yesterday the government published their response.

It’s clear that the findings of the report have been considered and taken seriously, but I struggled to find many instances of planned action on the government’s part beyond measures that are already in place. Without wishing to detract from those (extremely positive) measures, such as investment in Athena SWAN, there seemed to be a lack of willingness to take things further outside existing frameworks. This was especially noticeable in the response to Recommendation 16 from the select committee, which reads:
“Balancing the benefits of short term contracts with the needs of Post-Doctoral Researchers was examined by our predecessor committee in 2002. We are disappointed at the lack of progress in the last decade. The system of short term employment contracts for post-docs results in job insecurity and discontinuity of employment rights that is difficult for any researcher, but disproportionally deters women from continuing with science careers. It also has implications for workforce productivity.”
Disappointingly, whilst the government accepts that short term contracts are “challenging to individuals”, they claim that the burden of changing this rests entirely with Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). Because HEIs are autonomous employers, the government argues, they set the length of a contract and provided they conform to legislation the government’s hands are tied. This view misses out a crucial fact: many postdocs are government funded, either through a personal fellowship or through research council money won by their HEI, and the duration of that fellowship or grant is set by the research council.

HEIs are often unable to extend individual short-term contracts beyond the term of the funding, so in effect the length of a postdoc contract is dictated by the research council’s funding structure. This is something that the government needs to recognize, and RCUK has to take responsibility for.

My second concern is with the statistics provided in Appendix A, showing a steady decrease in the percentage of full-time research-only staff on fixed-term contracts between 2004 and 2013. One thing that really stands out is the focus on research-only staff. The majority of early career staff are research-only, whereas most senior staff also have teaching commitments; therefore, one would expect scientists to move out of the research-only category as part of their natural career progression. It is therefore difficult to tell whether this statistic really reflects an increase in permanent jobs for academic staff, or whether it instead reflects a shift away from combined research/teaching to more research-only tenured posts.

Despite problems with some of the government’s responses, I still think the committee report has had really positive outcomes for women in science, and it’s reassuring to see it being taken seriously at the highest levels in the UK. Whilst there are many changes that we still want to see, it’s worth acknowledging the encouraging signs that are already there: the Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships and Daphne Jackson Trust fellowships, designed to help those who require flexible working or who are returning from a career break; the fact that “family constraints” are an acceptable reason to apply to a particular host institution for the STFC Ernest Rutherford fellowship; the large number of HEIs who have signed up to Athena SWAN and Project Juno. I hope the recommendations from the report will be attended to carefully over the next few years.

- Dr. Jo Barstow