We need a different kind of superhero: improving gender diversity in academia

[Guest post by Jill Gould, Online Course Facilitator, UniSA Online, University of South Australia and organiser of a symposium on gender diversity in academia that I participated in.]

Academics throughout the world have researched the lack of gender equality that exists across all sectors – in the workplace, the home, politics, the sports field and so on. But the academic institutions in which these researchers operate are also not gender inclusive. Isn’t that the poster child for irony?

All is not lost. There are truly outstanding academic minds working on this issue around the globe. I was fortunate enough to find four professors involved in quite different initiatives designed to create gender inclusive academic environments, who were keen to join me in a symposium I was organising for the 2020 Academy of Management meeting.

  • Prof. Carol Kulik, Research Professor of Human Resource Management and senior researcher within the Centre for Workplace Excellence, University of South Australia;
  • Prof. Anne-Wil Harzing, Professor of International Management and Staff Development Lead at Middlesex University London;
  • Prof. Diana Bilimoria, KeyBank Professor and Chair of the Department of Organizational Behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University; 
  • Prof. Kathleen L McGinn, Cahners-Rabb Professor of Business Administration Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Strategy and Recruiting Harvard Business School.

As part of our symposium, “innovative approaches to creating gender inclusive academic environments” I interviewed each of these four researchers and posed a raft of weird and wonderful questions. Read on for their responses.

You can even watch part of the interviews thanks to to the uber creative Belinda Rae, PhD Candidate from the Centre for Workplace Excellence, UniSA Business, University of South Australia, who created the engaging, inspired videos below. She’s managed to turn a few hours of interviews into punchy, exciting, fun to watch videos. 

Female academic superheros?

One of these questions was a thought experiment, where the professors were asked what a female academic superhero would look like. Their responses make you start to think about how we might actually address the issue of gender diversity in academia. What’s amazing, is that the superhero we end up with here is someone we can all be, right now, if academia just allowed it. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.

Well, she doesn’t look like a traditional superhero, that’s for sure. She may not even be trying to be a superhero. In fact, she might be the one showing us that women don’t have to be perfect. They don’t have to fit that impossible ideal of effortlessly balancing an academic career with parenting and being the perfect partner.
She wouldn’t use the weaponry of a traditional superhero. Perhaps love and compassion are her weapons. She might be caring and thoughtful, building trust and strong relationships. This is so important for creating strong organisational cultures. She could simply just “be with” as a way to conquer all people.

Our female academic superhero would be an equaliser. Her superpower would lead to the creation of equal structures, equal networking, equal power, equal compensation. And this would enable academia to welcome young women. Female academic superheroes would be role models, showing women who are thinking about an academic career that their future would be full of possibilities; they can be successful, have exciting and rewarding careers. Women contemplating an academic career definitely need role models; people who have succeeded who look just like them.

And this is my favourite take on the female academic superhero.

She would be a librarian or an archivist - is anyone else having flashbacks to Rachel Weisz in “The Mummy” right now? She would be able to synthesise vast amounts of knowledge. She would use data to produce evidence-based solutions. Isn’t that the whole point of academia? We use evidence to increase our knowledge and to provide solutions to problems. Our female superhero should do this too.

Our superhero looks pretty human, doesn’t she? If we can give her the opportunity to be human, not be perfect. If we can permit her to be caring, not view this as being somehow less than a leader. If we can give her equal power, opportunities and resources, not hinder her ability to succeed. And if we can listen to her evidence, really listen, so we can understand the issue, not brush it aside as “not in my workplace”. Then we can start to see real change.

It’s not rocket science.

If you had a magic wand?

We also asked our symposium participants to provide their input in the discussion. Here are there answers to the question: "If you had a magic wand, what one change would you make so that academic workplaces were more gender inclusive? They came up with some great answers.

I think my magic wand isn't as nice as the panellists' versions! My wand would cause lockjaw at that early unconscious bias stage. This would force individuals to think before they make decisions, before they speak. Their thinking would have to slow down, so they don't make quick judgements based on the demographics they see in an instant.
The rewind idea is great. I've seen times when someone has put their foot in their mouth by blurting something out and then being very embarrassed. I'm sure they'd love a rewind. One occasion was a female friend of mine who is a senior executive. She entered a meeting, and someone asked her whether coffee was going to be available. She explained she had no idea, not working in that building. Suffice to say he was very embarrassed by his assumption and very apologetic. In this case, a rewind, as long as he knew what he had done so he could not do it again, would have saved him the embarrassment.
love the lockjaw answer! Let me riff on that for a moment -- how about lockjaw followed by a brief rewind, so the person could have a do-over?
Give everyone the ability to feel what it is like to be the other person, even if for only 10 seconds. "Flip it to test it", but then for real. Not just majority to minority, but the reverse too!!

If I had a magic wand, I wish male academic can feel how busy female academic can be when they are pregnant or having young children. I personally do not have a child, but many of my PhD friends are pregnant or they have young children. They are super busy, and they work so hard to not fail the PhD. They rarely attend our school social activities because they don't have time. After a long time, sometimes I feel they are not part of our department.
I would ask everyone involved to have empathy and courage. You need empathy to understand specific challenges of other people who are of different gender/race/religion, etc. You need courage to admit openly that some solutions are not immediate win-win solutions, and that in the short term increasing opportunities for some disadvantaged groups means decreasing opportunities for other (currently more advantaged groups).
I'd like more emphasis on the need for men's behaviours to become more inclusive. A lot of the time, the main focus continues to be on 'fixing' women. Both inclusion and exclusion are relational processes and regardless of how self-reflexive and inclusive a woman might be, she'll have no chance in an environment where men dominate and are neither self-reflexive nor inclusive.
I would implement full transparency and accountability in every aspect of decision making, from R&S decisions to small allocation of resources (e.g., teaching assistance).

Have you ever displayed gender bias yourself?

Lots of research has shown that gender bias is not restricted to one gender. Women can display it too, making it really hard to address. Here are our participants honest answers to this question.

A lot of the time! I'm learning to recognise my own biases and not to act 'from a place of bias' but it's hard.
Yes, I am often inclined to ask more of my female colleagues because of I know they are more likely to say yes and will do a good job. Really not fair and I don't like it when it is done to me. So I have written up a blogpost on this as much to remind myself as anything else :-)
Yes, I am more likely to ask my female colleagues for help, because it is easier. In class, I sometimes make assumptions that girls are more diligent and organised than boys, which might not be true, since I do not actually have any data on this.
The research suggests that women's letters of recommendation (for jobs or promotions) have more comments about personality, character, etc. I've become more mindful of that in my own writing. It is important to know that any potential hire is a good team member, is conscientious, etc. but we don't want those personal attributes to overshadow the content about skills, talent and achievements.

Why are gender inclusive academic environments important?

Of course we think gender inclusive academic environments are important. But why? Our participants had some great ideas on this.

Gender inclusive environments are important in general, but maybe ESPECIALLY important in ACADEMIA. Think of the ripple effects. If we role model inclusion to all the future managers going through business classes, they'll know what to do in their own workplaces.
I really think the smart work environments have diversity, including gender diversity. Think about a cycling team (yes, I'm a cyclist!). Each team has a couple of sprinters, but they need the domestiques to get them to the final sprint. And there are the riders who drop back to collect water. There's the coach in the car, the mechanics and so on. These people have diverse skills and backgrounds. In academia, we want people with different perspectives, different experiences - in other words, we want diversity. Only then are we able to make the best decisions possible.
As academics, we are supposed to be role models to our students. How can we teach them about gender equality and diversity in organisations when we do not practice what we preach?
It’s important to me because a lack of gender diversity in our institutions is like having a restricted sample to analyze the complex phenomena of our working lives. We just don't see the full picture. The greater breath of diverse experiences to draw upon, allows us all to have a more accurate understanding of how our academic institutions are working for everyone. As scientists we know this logic, we just need to bring it into our reality.
When academic environments are exclusionary, they are places where injustice occurs. Until academic environments eliminate injustice within them, the world won't become a just place.
To ensure all academics believe they are similarly respected, valued, recognised for their performance and given access to work opportunities. Perceptions of gender inclusive academic environments are likely to lead to many positive individual (e.g., higher work engagement) and organization (e.g., more collaborative and potentially innovative teaching and research) outcomes.

What does your female superhero look like?

And to come full circle to the female superhero theme, here are a few more superheros suggested by our participants. Who would you like to be?

I have to admit to being a super hero fan. My female academic super hero would be confident in her ability (no imposter syndrome here!), would be great at networking (no thinking that you're imposing!) and would be very forgiving. Forgiving? Yes! She would forgive herself - she wouldn't expect herself to be everything to everyone. Basically, I think we can all be superheroes. Too cheesy? Probably, but it's my story....Lol
My female superhero would be someone who draws on her unique skills rather than trying to "lean in" and conform to the dominant group. Above all she would show how kindness in leadership trumps competitive behaviour.
I love the superhero idea because superheros always have alter-egos: the quiet mild-mannered reporter or librarian. The best superheros know when they need to be part of a group and when they need to be in front of a group. I think that's one of the most challenging parts of being a woman in any environment (but especially academic environments). Sure lean in, but knowing when to lean in?
My female academic superhero would be a successful tempered radical! Someone who changes the system from within the system by using a variety of strategies that bring about (small and large) gender diversity and inclusion change.
My female academic superhero would be someone who respects everyone but doesn't try to please anyone. Someone who has a strong sense of what she stands for; someone open to dialogue; someone who doesn't judge others before getting to know them; someone who actually likes herself and people in general, and has compassion for everybody; someone who likes a good, wholehearted laugh...
My female academic super hero would be able to not give a damn about all the competing demands and expectations others throw at them. She would be able to tune out the emotional noise and the anxiety of not being able to meet others' expectations about her. Other than that, she would be a normal academic, doing what needs to be done, enjoying some parts of her job and tolerating others, less pleasant.
I love the “not give a damn”. It’s so true that women try to be everything to everyone. And I think that’s reflected in some of the gender bias responses. We know women do this, so it’s easy to ask a woman, because she’s more likely to say yes.

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