UCL Global


The gender agenda: 50:50 or 60:40 – how are we doing?

13 June 2017

UCL SMT Gender Champion and Vice-Provost (International) Dr Nicola Brewer writes about UCL's 50:50 gender equality group.

Keyboard with man and woman keys. Image: iStock / vaeenma…

By UCL SMT Gender Champion and Vice-Provost (International) Dr Nicola Brewer

UCL’s 50:50 gender equality group, which Geraint Rees and I co-chair, is taking stock of how ready we are to renew our application for a university-wide Athena SWAN Silver award. We’ve got until November next year. 

Surprise, surprise, the application form has changed. There are new questions on important topics such as professional services careers that we need to address if we are to maintain our silver status. 

The stakes are high. If we lost our university award, no new departments would be able to apply nor existing departments able to renew their award, including those who need a silver Athena SWAN award to get NIHR research funding. This would be the case until we got our university award back again. So this matters for financial as well as for fairness reasons.

At UCL, we don’t only think about gender equality when we’re renewing our Athena SWAN applications or on International Women’s Day. 

In an era of Everyday Sexism and threats to hard won battles for equality such as the 1973 Roe vs Wade case in the US, we can’t take even the progress we’ve made in recent years for granted. I want a level playing field. But I want even more badly for the field not to become less level again.

Not a zero sum

I don’t see gender as more important than other aspects of diversity. As I used to argue when I was at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, progress on diversity is not a zero sum. 

Moving forward on one equality ‘strand’ – gender, disability, ethnicity, sexuality, age, religious belief or non-belief, or across different strands, known as ‘intersectionality’ – also contributes to the broader goal of making our society more tolerant in the best sense of that word. 

Speaking out against sexual harassment or intolerance of any kind benefits everyone. It develops a shared sense of what’s OK and what’s not OK. It helps everyone work out where to draw the line. 

Not easy, and that’s why the UCL ‘Full Stop’ symposium chaired by the Provost this week is so significant.

I use three lessons from earlier in my career as a guide. The first two come from my EHRC days. First: ‘nothing about us without us’ – the Disability Rights Commission’s mantra. It means, ask, don’t tell, someone from a particular group what they might want or need. 

Nothing infuriated me more when I was a young working mother than being told, “Oh, that’s not a job for you.” (Actually, a recent blog by University of Cambridge Professor Athene Donald flagged an even more irritating line, “Your time will come!”)

The second lesson is that only a few human rights are absolute, like the right not to be tortured. Most are qualified, like the right to respect for private and family life. My rights are qualified by your rights. 

And finally the third guiding principle, which I learned in South Africa, is ‘ubuntu’ – a Nguni word Desmond Tutu defined as meaning, “My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.” We have to define ourselves and our identities in relationship to others.

Making progress

That spirit of flexibility is why I’m personally keener on 60:40 goals than 50:50 ones. I don’t mind being in the 40% of women in a group – even if being in the 60% would be more comfortable. 

But I expect men not to mind if they are in the 40% either, and not to make a fuss about feeling ‘overrun by women’. The nice thing about 60:40 is that it is a gender neutral goal.  

So how close is UCL to that? Making progress, but not evenly. 57% of applicants to UCL, and 59% of those appointed, are women. At the top, the leadership group has improved from 20% women in 2015 to 25.6% in 2017 – that’s 10 extra women in senior roles. 

The proportion of women in grades 9 and 10 has been rising steadily for the past four years, from 31% in 2012 to 35.7% in October 2016. 

But it doesn’t look so good from the standpoint of a female postdoc. We still have a significant pipeline issue: 50% of our postdocs are women, but only 25% of our professors are (although this compares favourably with the Russell Group). 

How have we made progress? Through a concerted series of actions, some small, some bigger, all expressing senior commitment to making a difference. 

Many are focused on the ‘gateway’ moments, where the pipeline of women often starts to tail off. Here are some of the things that seem to be working:

  • open and transparent processes for advertising and selecting heads of departments and senior roles – but we need to implement and monitor these consistently
  • discouraging single sex panels (expert or interviewing)
  • instructing executive search firms to provide gender and ethnically diverse long lists
  • local mentoring schemes, many initiated by Athena SWAN self-assessment teams
  • the Future Leaders programme
  • the Provost’s scheme for Women in Leadership
  • the Parents and Carers Together (PACT) network
  • job shadowing and coaching
  • the best paternity policy in the sector (but not enough UCL dads and partners know about it)
  • the UCLU Zero Tolerance to Sexual Harassment campaign.

And more that we can and are planning to do:

  • our anti-harassment event, ‘Full Stop’, and related training on “Where do you draw the line?”
  • advertising more jobs as potentially flexible, part time or job share
  • showcasing examples of senior job share arrangements
  • more use of the ‘tie breaker’ clause in the 2010 Equality Act
  • promoting examples of men at UCL taking Shared Parental Leave.

If you’re a man reading this, thank you. If women hold up half the sky, men hold up the other half. And please don’t feel threatened. This is about talent and fairness and positive action, not positive discrimination.

For more information about the Athena SWAN process contact equalities@ucl.ac.uk.