Today we had a presentation on gender equality, delivered by Professor Paul Walton of York University. The talk itself systematically reviewed the evidence for gender inequality in academia and in science, provided evidence for the causes of gender inequality (including studies on unconscious bias) and discussed evidence-based methods for dealing with the problem. The talk itself was excellent; the discussion afterwards, I’m sorry to say, was not.
There was a sizable minority of students in that room who felt that there was no need for action on gender inequality, that it was the natural order of things for women to drop out of physics and that it would sort itself out with time. Prof. Walton addressed all of these criticisms and others in his talk, but his key point was this: women are not going to be on a level playing field with men in scientific disciplines until issues such as unconscious bias are addressed. Unconscious bias shows no signs of disappearing on its own – the only way to counteract it is to be aware of it. I have it, you have it, we all have it – it’s part of how our brains work. Try the Harvard Implicit Association Test to find out how strong your bias is.
This is not to say that gender inequality is inevitable: there are things we can do. Athena SWAN awards are challenging departments to alter their practices and providing support. As PhD students, we might not have such a wide impact, but we can still help by encouraging positive debate on the subject and supporting each other. We need everyone to help out on this – male, female and other.