Is the BBC’s Seamus McKee sexist?

The European Commission’s campaign encouraging girls to choose science careers, Science: It’s a girl thing, was media fodder once again recently, this time on the BBC Ulster’s radio program Evening Extra, on which I was one of the guests.

The segment (hear it here) begins with a discussion of the by now thoroughly thrashed original teaser video for the campaign.

Host Seamus McKee quickly broadens the discussion and deftly reveals the skepticism one typically meets when discussing gender balance in science.

Imbalance at home

McKee asks Dr. Geetha Srinivasan — a Queen’s University Belfast scientist and 2012 L’Oréal-UNESCO prize winner — why women need their own prizes “if they’re the equal of men.”

Dr. Srinivasan tells a story from her own life illustrating how gender imbalance at home feeds gender imbalance at work.

There can be no dispute that there remains a significant gender imbalance at home. In the UK, women in dual career couples where both partners have post-secondary education do twice the housework and even more of the childcare than their male partners.

I was the other guest on the program and after listening to Srinivasan’s comments on the domestic imparity, McKee turned to me. “Why does it matter if it’s men or women in science? Isn’t the important thing that you get good scientists?”

A campaign focused on recruiting more girls to study science, McKee seems to fear, isn’t about getting good scientists — it’s about getting good women scientists. But the most important thing is surely quality, not gender. As though there’s a conflict.

Structural causes of inequality

McKee’s questions could be construed as a call to inaction. But perhaps there’s some value in being reminded always to emphasize that gender balance enhancement is about quality enhancement. Not everyone sees this connection; fortunately, there is now extensive research concluding that gender balance enhances the quality of workplaces and the performance of research teams.

Fewer than one professor in five in the UK is a woman. In many fields, women have been the majority among students for quite some time. The numbers at sub-professorial levels are less problematic, too. The challenge is at the top.

Women disproportionately fail to complete the final assault on the career summit. Why? McKee gives me an opportunity to mention one or two of the reasons.

The structure of an academic career plays itself out differently for men and women, I propose. A brief moment for elaboration allows me to note that self-promotion is essential in academia, as well as participation in what Theresa Rees calls the “long hours culture.” Men and women present differently in both of these areas.

He drops it, asking my colleague how to recruit girls to science, without another word for structural barriers.

Dr. Srinivasan then makes some good points, focusing on having good role models and the ways in which science is taught.

A whistle-blower moment

McKee still can’t let go of the idea that there’s something unnecessary about it all. “Is there sexism in science? Have you experienced it in your work?”

Geetha Srinivasan prudently answers that she has heard about cases of sexism in science, and the hoped-for whistle-blower moment passes.

Sexism isn’t discovered through the anecdotes of individuals; it’s discovered through research and the force of logic. The experience of individuals matters, to be sure, but the problems are systemic, as the numbers demonstrate. How can drawing 80% of the professorate from 50% of the population be anything but sexist?

McKee turns to me with yet another question challenging the need for a campaign. We don’t need to work to recruit girls or to reward women, he suggests. “It’s the men who need to be targeted.”

Yes. And, no. We need to target girls and women to convey the attractiveness of the careers. That’s the point of the EC campaign. We need to target men and women as part of the work to change structures in universities that treat the sexes differently and to implement structures that will counter the tendency to discriminate. Men and women must do this work together.

Changing discriminatory structures is one of the grand challenges for university leadership today. The tools for change will make universities more attractive work places, and thereby start to solve the dangerous attrition problem recently highlighted by The Guardian in Why women leave academia and why universities should care.

Sexism or journalism?

Now, to answer the question in my title: Is Seamus McKee sexist? I have no idea. But I do think it’s fair to ask. I ask the question because the segment was too patronizing too often: “… if women are the equal of men … why does it matter … have you experienced sexism … aren’t men really the ticket to solving the problem for women …”

I would have preferred to see acknowledgement that gender imbalance at home is relevant, that the numbers themselves make a strong case for sexism, and that the cost to society of not recruiting to research from the entirety of the population is too high to accept. With that as a starting point, we could have used those few minutes to offer a vision of careers in science and a vision of what kind of workplaces nurture gender balance. We could have focused on why science is better when men and women cooperate.

But, seriously, I don’t know if McKee is sexist. Maybe he just likes conflict-oriented journalism.

If that’s the case, I hope he’ll like this essay.

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more


1 Comment

  • Anna says:

    Women scientists should boycott the L’Oréal-UNESCO prize.

    After all, L’Oreal makes its money by exploiting insecurities about their physical appearance that their ads promote in women and young girls – and increasingly in men. It’s a disgrace for them to be involved in such a prize – a bit like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, which along with other fast food companies are responsible for the obesity epidemic, sponsoring the Olympic Games, the epitome of fitness. It is the height of hypocrisy and a deliberate attempt by these companies to diassociate themselves from the very negative effects their businesses are having on society. They have the morals of cigarette companies, as evidenced by the fact that they (along with other cosmetics manufacturers) are now subcontracting to Chinese companies to do animal testing, as they want to enter the lucrative Chinese market where such testing is a requirement. (Yesterday’s Telegraph.)

    L’Oreal’s whole message to women is ‘Because you are NOT worth it!’ (And we really don’t care for anything except profit.)


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