Sexism, shirts, Sutton and saying goodbye

By Victoria Metcalf 09/12/2014 4

Sexism is rife in academia and leads to many leaving academic careers.
Sexism is rife in academia and leads to many leaving academic careers.

Last week I worked my last day as an academic at Lincoln University, the disestablishment of my position in the protracted restructuring process officially complete. It’s time for a new chapter in what has been a pretty ugly year. Now I start on an adventure into an unknown, which may or may not include academia, may or may not include science. To say the buildup to this day has been difficult is an understatement. To read more about the prelude to this post read Basking in the conference afterglow or swansong? and Impotency problems.

At my farewell do, I gave a largely off the cuff speech. It went along these lines:

“Where-ever I work I try and instill positive change, and I aim to leave a legacy in each place that I’ve worked. Here, over the last six and a half years, I’ve worked hard on innovating and putting in place positive change in a number of areas, some of which others have referenced in their speeches today (for example, innovative teaching practice including students creating YouTube videos, getting academics using Twitter, pushing science communication, being energetic, cheerful and motivated).

There’s one thing in particular, that I want ,however, to speak briefly about. It’s something that I have quietly behind the scenes and at times perhaps loudly tried to raise as an issue higher up in this institution, and that is the plight of women academics and especially, women in science within these walls.

It’s well known that women in academia and especially women in the sciences face enormous hurdles and challenges in their careers. This is not unique to Lincoln; rather, diversity and equality are a longstanding internationally observed widespread problem in the sciences. It’s been much written about, researched, and published in journal articles. It’s been yelled about and discussed ad nauseam. However, the challenges remain- there are new popular press or journal articles every week on this matter. For a variety of reasons though, our institution shows an amplified effect that makes it much harder to be and succeed as a woman academic here than elsewhere.

Much of this amplification effect is due to numbers. It’s my understanding that we have extremely low rates of women academics here, and the lowest percentages of women academics in our Faculty of Science in the country. When I and others leave, we’re left with approximately 12% women academics and more to go next year. In this department, just a single female academic (5%) close to retirement age remains. There are few of my female colleagues remaining.

Perhaps, because I am standing here today and in this situation, I have failed in my mission, which is why I’m raising it. If I want a move towards equality to be my legacy, then I need your help in carrying on what I have started.

Some other countries are doing so much better in their goal towards equality in the sciences. The UK and Australia* are particularly active in this regard and are years ahead of us. There are so many small things that can be changed to achieve a more equitable workplace. Little and simple initiatives that can be put in place that make all the difference. 

You may be angry with what I am saying, you may be frustrated, or you simply may not understand. Especially if it’s the latter, at some point down the track ask a colleague who you think may know more than you: “Hey, what was all that stuff about women in science about?”. That’s the starting point for change, the start of a conversation.  That’s where it all begins. Ask the few remaining women scientists here- find out from them just how difficult and different it is to be a female academic. What are the challenges that they uniquely face?

And take up the initiatives that I have started. I hope that as many of you as possible push quietly, loudly, perhaps briefly or hopefully in a sustained way for change. Push for equality for women academics here.

Why do this? Do it for the few remaining females left here. Do it to make their jobs just that little bit easier. But most of all, do it for all of you. It may sound horrible to say this but the research is very clear. When there are more women in a team, the team performs better**. It is more productive, more cohesive and collegial. This is especially true of those in leadership positions and academic positions ARE leadership positions. Do it for the students around you who need positive women role models. Do it for everyone. We all do better when there are more women present.

Call on me to help, to provide information and resources.  And PLEASE let me know how my legacy is going.”

I’m pleased to say that my speech had its desired inspiring impact:


My desire is that my call to arms translates into action that results in real differences in my former workplace.

Sexism surrounds us

Sexism though is everywhere in science. It’s been a contentious issue for decades and sadly shows no signs of going away anytime soon, because we’re still a long way away from equality. The barriers are multi-faceted and complicated. Women in science face a suite of challenges to their career progression that range from the subtle and covert to the extreme and overt: such as unconscious bias, balancing parenting responsibilities, part-time status and workplace inflexibility, imposter syndrome, administrative pigeonholing, benevolent sexism (higher load of teaching and pastoral care), cognitive dissonance from women in senior positions, harassment, intimidation and bullying.

Such discrimination starts even before being hired. However, as I said in my speech the solutions can be simple. That is not to say that they will not take an enormous amount of hard work and persistent head-banging to achieve.

It’s quite clear too that the ethos of the last few decades of just waiting until cohorts of older, mainly male, academics retire to get the desired change to happen is not working. Like attracts like. #shirtstorm (the furore over Rosetta probe space scientist Matt Taylor’s shirt) demonstrates that sexism isn’t restricted to an older demographic.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons, Табуретка


Social media slugouts

Twitter has been a great connector in the push for less misogyny, sexism and more diversity and equality in STEM. It feels like there’s a groundswell of momentum, a true mood for change around the globe. This is encouraging. On the flip-side however, social media like Twitter has shown that the push-back can be strong and terrifying, for example, in the #shirtstorm saga. Much hatred is leveled at those described as Social Justice Warriors, or SJW, or far worse names.

Let’s be clear too. Sexism, misogynistic behaviours and a lack of diversity or equality are not confined to either academia or the sciences. We’re surrounded by it. The Sutton sexual harassment case here, #gamergate and the Cosby rape allegations overseas highlight just how far we have to go, how epidemic inequality is. The polarisation of responses too, to these high profile cases, and the prevalent victim blaming and/or lack of voice given to the victim that occur are extreme examples of what women in workplaces face every day- accusations, labelling and lack of a voice.

Despite being the first country in the world to give women the right to vote, New Zealand is yet to look at a national level at what’s really happening with gender in the sciences and within academia. A strong push in this regard at a national level would force individual institutions to address what lies within their walls. It takes at least 25% women to mitigate bias. Yet I leave behind a department with just 5%. It would be wise for us to look over the ditch and beyond: Australia and the UK are both good leads to follow.

In keeping with the theme of my last day an interesting conversation occurred later that night on Twitter. A prominent male New Zealand scientist put out the idea that awards such as the RSNZ awards should be based on merit not gender. To simplify the argument to this level, is to effectively deny that we have a diversity problem. Responses came thick and fast from female and male scientists alike providing more information, references, studies, personal accounts.

Rather than taking this on board and listening and engaging (perhaps he felt attacked?) the scientist stuck to his position, suggested his female students had had no career success issues because they just “got on with it” and then deleted his entire Twitter account. This is a really saddening outcome. Once again I felt the momentum of a sea-change but the finality of that disengagement and the brutal termination of the conversation is a prime piece of evidence of just what we’re facing in the quest for equality. If we can’t converse how can we change? If the ears are firmly shut, then how do those that need to, listen?

Michael Hendricks (@MHendr1cks) put out a series of Tweets that same day that are thought provoking and apt:






Homeward Bound

If I’m in the mood for change and continuing to push for equality for women in the sciences, elsewhere others are too and determined to make it happen. In a truly remarkable Australian-led initiative, Homeward Bound has been launched:  this is a “state of the art leadership and strategic program available to 45 women in science”, particularly polar scientists such as myself. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime journey to Antarctica with an amazing assemblage of inspirational leaders such Jane Goodall on board.

What are the aims of this amazing opportunity?

• “Elevate the role of women in leadership globally
• Clearly demonstrate how polar science tells us what is happening with the planet
• Explore how women at the leadership table might give us a more sustainable future”

Expressions of interest are still open but only until the end of today, December 10-

This programme is exciting, inspiring and quite possibly a game-changer. If you’re a women in science then please do consider applying. The time is indeed right to elevate the status of women in science. 


In my element: challenging conditions and outside the box
In my element: challenging conditions and outside the box

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4 Responses to “Sexism, shirts, Sutton and saying goodbye”

  • […] It’s well known that women in academia and especially women in the sciences face enormous hurdles and challenges in their careers. This is not unique to Lincoln; rather, diversity and equality are a longstanding internationally observed widespread problem in the sciences – Victoria Metcalf […]

  • This is both a sad and an inspiring post, Victoria. Lincoln has lost not only a very good scientist and teacher but also an outstanding role model for young women, and will be the poorer for it. All the very best for the job hunt and I do so hope you’ll continue to blog here!

  • Vic, reading this one year on, I’m inspired by what you’ve done since leaving Lincoln, the niche you have worked to create in the Science Communication and Engagement space, the connecting role you continue to play, and the inspiration you continue to be through your thoughtfulness and commitment to science, women in science, and science communication and engagement. You rock!!!

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