I’m just back from the annual conference of the International Ombudsman Association, and this time the keynote presentation was focused on the role of the ‘bystander’ or the person who witnesses an unacceptable or potentially harmful situation and does nothing. Yet they have an influence simply by being there.
Why does bystander presence matter?
Last month, CERN hosted a meeting of the European Ombuds and Mediator group, which brought together some 25 Ombuds from both the public and private sectors in Europe. It was an excellent opportunity for members of the network to connect with each other and share some of their processes and practice.
When I started working at CERN in 1976, women were a relatively rare sight. The few women who did work here generally held administrative roles, many having started with the incongruous job title of “scanning girls”, regardless of the age at which they had been recruited. Back then it was quite normal to walk into a workshop and find pictures of naked females on the walls, and everyday sexism was common. I recall once being told that women couldn’t possibly do night shifts in the control room.
Have you ever found yourself listening to someone and, although all the words make absolute sense, you have the feeling that something is not quite the way it sounds? Without being able to put your finger on exactly what is causing the doubt, you start to question their motives in your mind, and recognise a growing feeling of being manipulated.
Labelling colleagues – either in negative (“horns”) or positive (“halos”) terms – is like looking at them through a lens that colours all our perceptions, as well as those of others around us. This may result in a preconceived bias towards them that affects our judgements and, regardless of whether this takes the shape of horns or halos, makes us less objective in our assessments. It is therefore important to refrain from buying into such labels, and to keep an open mind at all times.
The “Gender in Physics” conference hosted by CERN last week showed that our Organization has been at the forefront of the drive towards gender equality in science over the last 20 years, with the launch of its Equal Opportunities Programme in 1996 leading the way. With women representing around 18% of our scientific and engineering staff today, we can proudly say that we have come a long way since 1995, when women represented around 11% of computer scientists, 3% of research and applied physicists and 0.5% of engineers.
The beginning of a new year is traditionally a time for us, as individuals, to take stock of things past and to set ourselves goals for the future. Why not then also make it a time where collectively, as CERN contributors, we choose to reflect on our everyday interactions and decide on ways in which we might contribute to fostering general wellbeing and a respectful workplace spirit around us.
When one is leading a project that is part of the activities of a team within a larger group that, in turn, consists of many sections, there is a real risk that information about who actually did what gets lost in the multiple layers of hierarchy. In large organisations like CERN, the middle management, namely the section and group leaders, play a crucial role in establishing a healthy work environment where credit is given to those who did the actual work and the multiple layers of hierarchy are appropriately informed as to the skills and performance of their personnel.
Sometimes sexism hides behind the words and apparent compliments that women hear from their colleagues, supervisors and managers. This can be a slippery slope, where the rules of the game often depend on the cultures involved, and the players’ actions may be said to be defined by their own perceptions and reactions.
“We have a great team! Three girls and two men working on this project”… Girls??? Who are you calling “girls”? Do you mean your female colleagues?
Confidentiality, impartiality, informality and independence: these are the guiding principles of the Ombud role. However, in order to have the best possible chances of a positive outcome, another important ingredient is needed: early action. Do not wait until a situation has deteriorated so far that it becomes unbearable – set the Ombud clock ticking and enlist support as soon as you begin to feel that things are not going well…