A bright pink bus has been touring the UK this week. Well, actually, two bright pink buses. One is pushing the cause of frozen yogurt; I’ll save for another day my attempt to weave that into a meaningful topic for The Scholarly Kitchen. The other has been nicknamed “Hattie’s Batty Battle Bus”, and is an effort by politician Harriet Harman to try and encourage more women to vote in Britain’s forthcoming general election. The campaign has been ridiculed for patronizing women, and yet (whether because or in spite of the pink) there is also some recognition that it is working, at least in the sense of generating column inches about the issue.
The story reminded me of the wider issues around trying to promote the cause of women, particularly in the workplace. It is widely acknowledged that we need more women in senior management roles, but few feel confident that quotas are the answer. In my own little microcosm, as part of the committee that organizes the annual UKSG conference, we have been challenged more than once for not having enough women giving plenary papers (though the balance is usually more than redressed if the less prominent parallel sessions are taken into account). I used to scoff at such accusations, feeling – as many others did – that gender had no relevance to our choices of speaker, and that we were simply seeking the person best able to speak on a topic.
This is probably because I come from a generation fortunate and apathetic enough to be able to dismiss feminism as faintly embarrassing bra-burning. I also am lucky to work in the scholarly communications sector. Although Alice Meadows is right that “the top ranks of scholarly publishing are still predominantly male”, I have never felt there to be a glass ceiling and I’ve always had plenty of female role models to aspire to, from the woman who gave me my first job and various female managers since who have mentored and inspired me, to those at the helm of trade associations, and women like Mary Ann Liebert and Sarah Miller McCune with their own publishing houses.
More recently, however, as co-founder of a start-up seeking funding, I’ve begun to move in another world. One where, when my colleague Melinda and I arrive at an event, we are doubling the number of women in the room. And the other two are taking coats and handing out canapés. We’ve encountered jokes about the need for more men in our executive team, and conversations where the serious questions are all posed to our third co-founder, David. I begin to see that the battle is not yet won.
Back in the context of UKSG conference speakers, it was put to me that being gender-neutral is not enough, because there is a legacy imbalance. The person who comes to our collective mind as “best able to speak on a topic” is usually the person most visible in relation to that topic. That visibility might have been achieved because of previous invitations to speak; it might even be traced back to hiring and promotion decisions made by unknown people. How can we be certain that no gender bias has been at play in how that person has achieved their current visibility? That kind of “supply chain due diligence” is clearly beyond what our crew of committee volunteers can achieve.
Of course, it’s not just external factors that influence someone’s visibility. There’s the Lean In argument – among other points, that women are less likely to “fake it till you make it” (take opportunities they don’t feel up to). This sort of thinking is the focus of a current mini-furor in the tech sector (with which I know many Scholarly Kitchen readers feel a close affinity), where women in tech are infuriated that a man has appointed himself, and is making a career out of being, their “spokesman”.
These various cultural factors have made me reconsider my position. Perhaps we do need to be more proactively seeking to balance out the male:female ratios in the world of scholarly communications. It’s not about quotas for quotas’ sake (my initial position); it’s about ensuring that there are more opportunities for women, and doing what we can to try to equip women to feel confident to take those opportunities. We might worry about an individual’s lack of experience, or question their skills – I’m now challenging myself to confront those concerns, and provide support and guidance, rather than ducking the issue. I wince when I remember the first talks I gave – waaaaay too much information without a clear story, read-it-yourself slides, and a nervous tic that caused me to stray now and then into an Irish accent. Any improvement since is down to practice, practice, practice, and down to those along the way who gave me platforms for that.
Now I’ve been given another platform: writing here at The Scholarly Kitchen. This is as alarming as it is gratifying; It’s quite a parapet to put one’s head over. My first reactions were to question whether I had sufficient experience or knowledge to put myself alongside the other writers here, and to worry that I’d be little more than a quota-filler. But my inner Sandberg has taken charge, reminding me of how much fun can be had from tackling a daunting challenge, so here we are: I’ll let you make your own judgments as to whether my arrival in the Kitchen is “making it,” or just a new phase of “faking it.” Either way, I thank you for the opportunity!