Creating more gender equitable and inclusive cultures is high on the agenda for many organisations. However there is often a disconnect between existing staff development activities and efforts to create the desired cultures. More explicitly linking individual development to organisational change can make a big difference to the return on investment when developing staff. The ‘bifocal approach’ translates this ideal into reality through clear principles and program design.

Only women need apply

A number of universities (Melbourne, Swinburne) have advertised academic positions specifically for women in the last year. Other institutions may well follow their lead. Positions for women are a way of accelerating progress, and may well become more palatable as institutions confront the low numbers of women, slow rates of change or even decline within certain STEMM disciplines made visible by their data analysis for Athena SWAN. I applaud these appointments and consider them an exciting game changer, signalling strong support for building more gender equitable institutions. However, it is worth noting that we have been here before. Affirmative action appointments occurred in the 1990’s and there may be lessons to be learnt from this.

One of the reasons I know this is because I have followed the career and contribution of Professor Carolyn Oldham, an environmental engineer at UWA who was the first female teaching and research academic in engineering when she was employed by Vice-Chancellor Fay Gale in 1994 as an affirmative action appointment. She has been a gender trailblazer who is now UWA’s Lead for Athena SWAN. I include some of her reflections below.

Firstly, what are the pro’s and cons of such an approach? Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s (Kanter, 1977a, Kanter, 1977b) famous work in the 70’s showed us that numbers and percentages of women do matter. She showed the precarious position for ‘token’ women where they represent less than 20% of the group and the ways in which the numerically dominant men set the workplace culture and norms. Differences between genders when the numbers are highly skewed become accentuated. Women experience greater visibility and scrutiny, and are often seen as representative of their gender. Any failure on their part becomes a failure for women in general (Kram and McCollom Hampton, 2003). Building on this work I have heard Professor Joanne Martin, describe key ‘tipping points’. While exceptional women will be tolerated as ‘tokens’ (often ‘joining’ the dominant culture to minimise conflict) as numbers approach 20% female, greater pushback may occur. Once women comprise around 40% gender becomes much less salient. Increasing the representation of women quickly, and getting beyond ‘token’ status and beyond 20% will contribute to culture change, and break down the ‘blokiness’ of male dominated cultures.

On the other hand women only appointments are contentious, often provoking backlash from both men and women. As a structural change approach it requires strong and committed leaders prepared to back their decision and deal with dissent. While women only appointments will change gender profiles there is still a great deal of work to be done to ensure success.

Based on my experience and research in male dominated disciplines I would suggest that there is gender capacity building work to be done both prior to any affirmative action appointments being announced and implemented, and following the appointments. Otherwise there is a real risk that all the hard work and cost of recruitment will become worthless if the women appointed are not retained or fail to thrive due to an unwelcoming and unsupportive workplace.

In my experience some of the potential barriers or difficulties include:

  • Lack of agreement amongst staff, both men and women, that there is a gender problem
  • Leaders who do not support the initiative and are vocal in their opposition
  • Isolated women who are not connected with other women and unable to support each other in tackling male dominated workplaces and therefore unlikely to support newcomers
  • Mentoring and sponsorship practices and networks that are strongly homosocial (men supporting men) with a lack of safety nets to ensure people do not fall through the cracks
  • New appointees who are not equipped to counter the backlash they receive

These are not insurmountable issues, but they need to be anticipated and proactively addressed. If you would like assistance with this work please get in touch.

As indicated earlier, despite potential difficulties I am a strong supporter of appointments for women where numbers are low and progress is not occurring. Carolyn Oldham’s experience informs my perspective.

Carolyn believes affirmative action appointments remain valid. Her own experiences were tough. Yet her presence signalled to women that it is possible to be in the engineering discipline and you become as she described, ‘like a magnet, attracting female students, and this in itself begins to change the culture’. The VC insisted she be highly visible, teaching very large first year engineering classes. Her visibility increased as she became not only their first female lecturer but their first pregnant female lecturer. Carolyn believes her presence created a strong ripple effect, paving the way for other women and for other pregnancies.

Carolyn participated in the Leadership Development for Women program at UWA twice, describing it as a lifesaver. The sharing of experiences with other women was a reality check, giving her some distance from her own experiences and enabling her to deal with a ‘crazy making culture’. She did encounter the ‘you only got it because you’re a woman’ criticism. However, her excellent academic background from a period at MIT in a tenure track feeder appointment helped her to deal with this. As she noted, it wasn’t new, but a variation on ‘you only got top marks because you slept with the Professor’ type comments that had accompanied her earlier studies in Chemistry and Engineering. As she noted, you prove your worth once you’re there. It’s not affirmative action when you get your first grant and get promoted. 

Her advice to women is to never doubt their worth and contribution. Her advice to Departments and Heads of School is to ask the new appointees ‘what support would they like, what do you need?’ rather than making assumptions. This resonates strongly with the invest for success approach described by Tom Welton, ‘what do you need to succeed?’. Her advice to institutions is to connect women in STEMM. But she says, 'don’t expect these networks to do any extra work for the institution, just allow them to hear each other’s stories. Sharing stories and insights in itself will create one of the biggest impacts on gender equity'.

KANTER, R. M. 1977a. Men and Women of the Corporation, New York, Harper Collins.

KANTER, R. M. 1977b. Some effects of proportions on group life: Skewed sex ratios and responses to token women. The American Journal of Sociology, 82, 965-990.

KRAM, K. E. & MCCOLLOM HAMPTON, M. 2003. When Women Lead: The Visibility - Vulnerability Spiral. In: ELY, R. J., FOLDY, E. G., SCULLY, M. A. & CGO (eds.) Reader in Gender, Work, and Organization. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.