Yes, we do! We do need more women in academia. We need more female role models. We need to find ways to recruit more women and also, maintain the well-prepared females who are already academics [relevant newspaper article]. However, we need a better understanding of the subtle and complex reasons why women may leave academia if we want to improve the numbers.
The ECU (Equality Challenge Unit) “support universities and colleges to build an inclusive culture that values the benefits of diversity, to remove barriers to progression and success for all staff and students, and to challenge and change unfair practices that disadvantage individuals or groups.” The Athena SWAN Charter in ECU recognises the need for “commitment to the advancement of gender equality in academia, addressing unequal gender representation across academic disciplines, professional and support functions and removing the obstacles faced by women.”
I am a lecturer at Aston University. In an interview, I was asked how does Aston University compare to other organisations you have worked for? My answer can be summarised in the following paragraphs.
I have seen first-hand that Aston is genuine in following the Athena Swan principle of advancing gender equality. At Aston, we have many academic women with families, whereas I feel other universities may be representative of women but not necessarily women with families.
When committing to the Athena Swan Charter, it is important to show that there are women in the organisation who are mothers, not just that there are a certain number of women within the organisation. Women at Aston are a good representation of this. This is important because I like to talk about my family and feel comfortable in doing so. This is important because one of the causes that women leave academia is because they find it hard to do the trade-off between academia and having time to have a family. Aston closely matches these preferences more than other organisations have in the past. And it is not just family-oriented women who are supported, it is just as important for family-oriented men to be supported too! (an aspect that is usually forgotten when we talk about diversity). Sure, we need more women in academia but, for this to happen we urgently need more women (and men!) who are decision-makers in academia and understand the issues. Male Professors may find it difficult to have the insight needed about these issues when they have strong support from a partner who takes care of the family most of the time. It may also be difficult that a female Professor understands the issues when she has no immediate dependents whom to take care, such as children.
I know these issues are not easy to talk about but they need to be discussed. I certainly urged the Athena SWAN Charter to take into account the nuances. It feels right to me.