Women’s work? That should be writing a Nature paper

It’s not that surprising, but I work in a strongly male-dominated field. And even by those heavily skewed standards, I currently work in a highly male-dominated department.

Young women can be often be spotted around the department, but sightings of mid-career or established female academics are rare. This means that my department employs very few women academics on an ongoing, tenured basis.

For now, this is just the way it is. At faculty meetings, women’s voices are rarely heard. Our collective language is gendered, and our departmental social functions tend to exclude, rather than include.

As a result of this scarcity, when I do encounter a Leslie Knope -type in my comings and goings, I’m always sure to latch on and not let go in hurry.

Until recently, I’ve not given this much thought. Surely a few trend-setting, trail-blazing, fabulous Knopes is enough set a stellar example and to inspire young scientists? And surely she would be happy for a group of young scientists to idolise her?

In general, even in male-dominated departments, we tend to have some understanding that the lack of equity and diversity (for women, as well as for other minorities) is a problem. When a selection panel or a group is formed in my current department, we agree that women should be involved in the decision-making processes. This seems useful and sensible.

Except that when there are very few women around to begin with, they end up participating far more in these kinds of service activities. That is, while the service work is partitioned amongst, say 25 or 40 men, there are only 3 or 5 women to share around the job of being the voice of diversity. As a result, women are often disproportionately required to engage in the necessary aspects of academia outside pure research, giving them less time to focus on their research.

Similarly, when I pick someone out and decide she is fantastic and admirable and thus demand more of her time informally mentoring beyond that expected of a “workplace proximity associate”, I am contributing to her burden as representative of “women”.

I call this additional set of expectations “women’s work”.  Women’s work is baking for the group meeting, organising accommodation for the school visitor or taking responsibility for the group retreat. Just the basic multi-tasking that women are born knowing how and wanting to do…

Of course men also undertake many necessary tasks for the functioning of research communities and departments. I do not suggest that men are lazy or unwilling to contributed, but rather that it often seems that a female scientist tends to give more time to service than a male scientist at the same level, on average.

Equity issues are particularly apparent when the few available women are expected to provide gender representation in groups and committees. In the case of my department, we aim to provide women a voice in decision-making as a shortcut to diversity. But we can instead ask, if men represent 100% of the senior faculty, why are they not 100% of the solution?

On one hand, it’s promising that these issues are coming to the surface and slowly pervading our community consciousness. In these well-established, traditional institutions, it seems like we are almost approaching a threshold moment in which the problem with a lack of diversity is no longer associated with rejecting the great contribution of existing academics. I hope so!

But on the other hand, these ideas of equal representation are a little misplaced. It’s as though we are saying that the burden of achieving diversity should fall only onto women. Expecting women to unequally contribute to the solution to our lack of diversity is simply entrenching the problem.

It’s not the job of women to be the voice of diversity, to be good mentors, to be generous with their time. This is everyone’s job!

Like many of my XX chromosomed-peers, I’ve been uncomfortable working in these male-dominated workplaces.

I’ve encountered hurtful gendered or homophobic language that should not be used in a workplace.

I’ve literally been pushed out of the way in a corridor and told to yield space to my betters.

I have friends who have been propositioned by vastly older male supervisors or who have felt isolated and unsafe for weeks at a time on fieldwork.

I’ve volunteered for baking and for organisational tasks when I felt I would irreparably disappoint if I did not.

But to frame the solution to these problems as a women’s issue – as women’s work – is more likely to encourage me to opt out of academia than experiencing these inappropriate practices in the first place.

It is not enough to recognise the lack of diversity in academic departments as problematic. We must also recognise that it everyone’s responsibility to be part of the solution. Anything else effectively blames the few women we have for the current predicament.

It isn’t Leslie Knope’s job to civilise our academic departments for us. It’s her job to be writing a killer Nature paper.

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