Why I refuse to ‘think like a man’

We don’t need to ‘fix the women’, we need to fix the system, says Dame Athene Donald

August 14, 2015
Bic advert, Think Like a Man, sexism

The recipe for success for women has been identified as:

Look like a girl,
Act like a lady,
Think like a man,
Work like a boss.

(or at least it was until the Bic South Africa advertising poster was pulled due to the public uproar).

This sentence is wrong on so many fronts I find it hard to know where to begin to take it to pieces. Nevertheless it has speedily been dissected by wise commentators from all round the world (here’s just one UK version).

It matters because the implicit message will be what many people still seem to believe. Our looks (or absence thereof) come first and we should be sure to look less than our age apparently; being a lady is something I object to anyhow, although at least this time the syntax is correct (unlike in the phrase lady scientist).

But what takes the biscuit as far as I’m concerned is the idea that men think differently and implicitly better than women. That if our poor little mushed-up brains were merely themselves we’d never get anywhere in the workplace, so we have to aspire to think like men.

But then, perhaps it would be all right after all because Donald Trump could come along and “cherish” us and UCL’s Tony Segal just “loves women. The more the better, so we could stay as mere decorative girls and still get on OK. Although probably not as successful academics.

Academia may be little better or worse than many professions for gender equality – law or medicine being obvious parallel examples – but we do seem to be increasingly measured in ways that look robust but almost certainly aren’t.

As the recent Hefce metrics report points out, relying on metrics isn’t necessarily wise.

Nevertheless, if “scores” are devised based on man-as-default, women will inevitably be less successful. Then the short-sighted bean-counters who devise such metrics can confidently announce that women just aren’t as good as men and the powers-that-be can smugly go on appointing people who look just like them. Success seems, in this picture, to be a self-perpetuating virtue.

All the arguments about what success looks like in academia – and the problems thereby caused for women’s progression – have been neatly pulled together in a recent short paper by Megan Henley on “Women’s Success in academic science, challenges to breaking through the ivory ceiling”. 

Key to this topic is the problem posed by measuring success by metrics that women either don’t want or aren’t set up to achieve, broadly speaking number of papers (or patents) and their citations. If you argue that how often a paper is cited is an indicator of the esteem in which it is held in the field, you are ignoring many inconvenient facts (see the Hefce review for more on this), including the fact that papers with errors in them are often highly cited.

So, let’s for a moment go with the view that men and women are fundamentally different in the way their brain works – which many may reasonably consider to be neurobollocks anyhow – then if you take the view that men are more likely to take risks due to higher testosterone levels then they may rush into print with an over-hyped paper which is then panned by many others; the citation count is high. Bingo it looks like “success”.

There are other problems that beset the citation count: for reasons that aren’t clear to me, it appears that papers with male authors are more commonly cited than those led by women.

Maybe this is because women don’t blow their own trumpets so much – it’s our natural ladylike modesty of course; or because they don’t get the same opportunity to network because they’re at home with the kids while their whizzkid – sorry that should have been successful – partners jet set around the world to talk about their own work (N.B. just in case you’re worrying that sentence is meant to be ironic).

I have to say I find it inconceivable that a man should sit down and deliberately exclude citations to a woman’s work simply because of her gender (but maybe I’m naïve), but I don’t find it all surprising that women are less well known since, as has been pointed out many times, they tend to get fewer high-profile speaking invitations.

So, we should be reconsidering what we think success looks like – as my own university’s book The Meaning of Success made clear a year ago. It’s time to stop sticking with the same old criteria based on lazy metrics and old-fashioned concepts of what is valued by a university.

Jenny Martin’s wonderful alternative set of metrics should be required reading for all appointment and promotion panels. It highlights many personal attributes that currently do not feature in the usual criteria, however valuable these additional criteria are.

Interestingly, this includes creativity: don’t kid yourself that writing many papers means someone is necessarily creative. Writing potboilers is a good way both of making one small idea go a long way and, in the process, being able to create lots of self-citations to push the citation count up.

Thinking like a man may or may not be creative – just as thinking like a woman may or may not be. But sometimes thinking at all is a rare virtue.

When it comes to looking after a research group, being so focused on a high output may come at the expense of the well-being of individuals in the group if you never stop to think about the pressures they are under.

Thinking about the workload you are dumping on your colleagues – academic and administrative – by being a serial offender at missed deadlines (exam question-setting perhaps) would also be a good thing to contemplate.

What about sparing a thought for the students who turn up for a 9am lecture only to find you have put so little effort into preparing the material that they would have learnt as much by staying in bed? Teaching too often counts for little in promotion but it will always be of importance for the students.

What is needed is a fundamental change in the mentality of what is important in a university so that we reward a broad range of contributions.

Paper count (including citations) and grant income are just two aspects of a complex suite of skills on which the well-rounded academic should be judged.

We don’t need to “fix the women” to make them more like men, we need to fix the system.

I refuse to think like a man (or to alter my voice to speak like one either, but that’s another story). Indeed I don’t really know what it means.

Diversity means valuing difference and in academia, as elsewhere, we should celebrate it and make sure that excellence is recognised wherever it is found and whatever form it takes. 

Dame Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics, University of Cambridge, and master of Churchill College, Cambridge. She is the university’s former gender equality champion. This post first appeared on her personal blog here.

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