Outdated ideas of “scientific excellence” and the tunnel vision of middle managers are among the factors still hampering diversity within universities, a conference heard.
Lesley Yellowlees, who recently retired as vice-principal and head of the College of Science and Engineering at the University of Edinburgh, told the Royal Society’s diversity conference on 1 November about her research on the lack of progression of women in scientific disciplines. Scottish figures for 2017 indicated that there was “still a leaky pipeline” in all fields and, despite slight improvements “at the top, professorial end”, progress had now slowed, indicating that “waiting it out is not an option”.
Along with a need for transparency and for challenging a “macho” culture to be seen, for example, in long working hours, Professor Yellowlees pointed to a number of structural factors. Those seeking promotion often turned to senior academics as referees, yet such people “tend to write references based on their experience of the person and don’t bother to read the paperwork or understand the criteria for promotion today”, which may well have changed since their own day. Even where university leaders had got the diversity message, middle managers could often prove an obstacle, because they “just want to get the job done and don’t understand the need for diversity”.
All the evidence, claimed Tom Welton, dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College London, suggested that younger academics wanted supportive leaders who were “good with people”. Yet if we were ever going to achieve that in institutions that were “riddled with status”, we would have to “change our idea of scientific excellence” so it included criteria other than “how good someone is with a round-bottom flask”.
Carole Mundell, professor of extragalactic astronomy and head of physics at the University of Bath, recalled an occasion at the start of her career when she was invited to an interview at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, where “the only diversity on the panel was whether one had a beard or not”.
A crucial factor in embracing real diversity, she suggested, was the motivation of academics. The effectiveness of their teams might not matter to those who were focused on getting a grant or winning a prize, yet those “trying to answer a really interesting question tended to realise that diversity makes you better at what you do – addressing a goal with people who are all the same means you will deliver mediocrity”. She added: “You don’t need clones, since you are already there.”
As part of wider efforts to bring about change, Professor Mundell also passed on a useful piece of advice she had received: “Instead of inviting a distinguished male academic to a seminar, make the effort to search out an even better woman.”