Do we not owe it to our daughters?

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.

As our Director-General said in her presentation, it is all about “encouraging, employing and enabling” women to pursue the fields of science and engineering, and the increase in the number of women at CERN certainly indicates that these efforts have borne fruit. But gender equality means more than just gender parity, and whilst continuing our efforts to encourage high-school students to pursue science and to employ our colleagues through equitable recruitment practices, we might perhaps also benefit from asking ourselves if we are doing everything possible to promote a mindset that truly enables all our colleagues to contribute as equals.

In the six years since the creation of the function, annual reports from the Ombud have shown that, whilst fewer women than men visit the office in absolute numbers, three times more women visit when considering the data relative to the sizes of the populations concerned. Of course, this could simply be a question of personal preference – “after all,” as one colleague remarked, “women talk more easily about their problems than men.” But is that an objective explanation or does it reflect an unconscious bias that is generally prevalent both at CERN and in society? The answer may well be a combination of both factors, but an informal comparison with other international organisations in the area confirms that the working environment and culture are an important contributing factor to this data, given that the lower the proportion of women in an organisation, the higher the proportion of female visitors to the organisation’s ombud’s office.

Organisational culture is defined as the values and behaviours that “contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organisation.” It refers to the collective pattern of beliefs and assumptions underlying the ways in which people interact with each other. Often this manifests itself in small acts of language or behaviour that in themselves appear reasonable, but combine to form a context with which only the majority can identify.

It is said that privilege is invisible to the privileged, and not only is it difficult for the majority to recognise the insidious barriers of organisational culture that minority groups face, it is sometimes equally difficult for those within the minority who have succeeded in overcoming them to grasp. Yet the issues reported daily in the Ombud’s Office, such as career development, lack of support, preconceived ideas, discouragement due to everyday sexism and a very visible lack of role models, would suggest that ours is not yet a level playing field for all concerned.

Indeed, a woman who walks into a meeting room surrounded by photographs of only male scientists, picks up a document that says that “the masculine gender shall be understood as referring to both genders”, or works in an environment where all her superiors are male may well ask herself what would happen if the situation were reversed. Isn’t it time that we realised that all these little things add up to a mindset that needs to change?  Do we not owe it to our daughters?

Sudeshna Datta-Cockerill

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