End envious attacks of green-eyed chauvinism 1

October 7, 2010

Thank you for "Sisters' winning formula" (30 September), which tackled the discrimination women face in the academy. It is refreshing to see that this important issue is gaining more visibility. It would be even more interesting to calculate the full economic cost of lost female talent worldwide and in the UK in particular.

In relation to my field, engineering, I would add a number of points:

• Women are known to need to work twice as hard to get half as far - yet whenever they get a great job or are successful, it is "because" they are women, not because of merit

• More attention ought to be paid to the fact that not all women's productivity drops due to childbirth. The phenomenon of a young mother outperforming male colleagues raises another problem that results in what is referred to by organisational consultants as "envious attacks". Such events can be career damaging and place horrendous stress on women, particularly if they are high-performing young mothers with far greater responsibilities than their threatened counterparts

• Envious attacks tend to originate from less secure colleagues - and engineering may have more than its share of insecure professionals. Maybe we ought to invest in personal coaching for those male colleagues and help them develop personal strength and leadership skills as a constructive way forward

• Witnessing envious attacks can send a very negative message to future female talent. They may think: "If she struggles like that, I will never make it."

• Some men struggle relating to senior women on a professional basis - and when a senior woman is pregnant, it can become farcical. In fact, an Australian vice-chancellor once told me that I should work less and focus more on my children (I chose to leave)

• The administrative and teaching burden many women complain about often concerns more tedious tasks (health and safety, diversity, recruitment and the like). Women with superb leadership skills and multitasking abilities are rarely invited to contribute to more powerful committees or administrative posts. Those are often exclusively male, including those at funding councils and editorial boards, hence a stagnant academic culture seems unsurprising

• I have had many very powerful mentors in my career so far and cannot report encounters with unhelpful senior women. What I have observed is that many women have horrendous stories to tell - if they dare to speak. The effects of discrimination on women's psyches - beyond high dropout rates - can be very similar to those experienced by any abuse victim (the loss of the ability to trust others being the most profound). As yet this is an entirely unexposed problem.

We have a social responsibility to set those issues right and collectively hold those in power to account. The academy and the economy will feel the benefits. Anyone who has read Barbara Goldsmith's excellent biography Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie (2004) may wonder how much has changed and understand what it takes.

Andrea Schafer, Chair of environmental engineering, School of Engineering, University of Edinburgh.

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