Aurora Champions: time to change the world?

Posted in: Ideas and debates, Reflections

“Walking here from the tube I think I passed every couture house in London.”
“I know, did you see…”
“I don’t want to perpetuate gender stereotypes, but I can’t say I noticed.”
“I bet you noticed the cars, though.”

OK, guilty. I was in Mayfair, yesterday, one of four men among 120 women at the Aurora Champions’ Conference. (They kept thanking us for being there.) This was an event for champions, mentors and role models, where we talked about taking the process beyond the development of individual women and on to changing the world, of HE at least. It was an Aurora-format event, with table groups and plenary speakers, and although we didn’t get a lot of table chat time I met loads of people I hadn’t seen for ages, plus of course some interesting new ones.

My main conclusion from the day was that no one initiative is enough, and we have to attack determinedly and ruthlessly on all kinds of fronts if a gender-balanced workforce is going to happen.

First up, Dennis Layton from McKinsey talked us through the data, the business case for making it happen. More diversity at board and executive level is correlated with better profitability across all the “geographies” they studied. Statistic of the day was that increasing gender diversity in the UK gets you ten times the profitability dividend that you get in the USA. Call me if you want to know why. Oh, and the smarter you are, the more likely you are to have unconscious bias!

Later we heard about Horizon 2020. Now I was dimly aware that there are more gender duties in EU funding nowadays, but I think we were all taken aback at just how deep it runs. As well as the gender balance of your team, you have to explain the gender implications in the content of your research, down to the end-user experience. The scientist tweaking millet genes in the lab has nothing to worry about, right? Well, if you change the way those crops are planted and grown in the developing world, you could fundamentally impact on gendered society roles. I’m sure everyone here is on top of it, but I’ll be putting in a call to RIS just in case.

The centrepiece was a debate, chaired by Mishal Husain from the Today programme. And there’s an awesome role model, by the way. I’m used to working with some sharp women, present company included, but her speed of thought and ability to get underneath issues and steer the discussion to the things that mattered, in the most affable way, was breath-taking.

The topic was “Affirmative Action or Not?” Very little has changed in the 45 years since the first equality legislation, across all sectors, so isn’t it time to tear up the rule book and introduce things like quotas? We heard from Norway, where they have quotas on public bodies ("If the objective was to meet the quota, we've achieved it"), as well as the CEO of the Equality Challenge Unit and VC Cara Aitchison.  I thought the mood in the room definitely swayed towards the “time to do something more radical” faction, but there were lots of voices urging a more measured pace, that we’re on the cusp of a different world, and anyway there are laws we can’t circumvent.
The final speaker, Averil Leimon, feels that her generation thought the same thing in the 80s and they dropped ball. Then as now, the young men, whatever their attitudes, will enter an environment that is controlled by the older generation, and they will become changed by it and so perpetuate a “landscape that wasn’t designed for women.” Speaking of positive and affirmative action, she made the point that quotas and merit are not mutually exclusive. “As soon as you talk about quotas, they think you’re just going to go on the street and get anything with a vagina.”

We have a target (not a quota) to get 30% female membership of University committees, and three female heads of academic departments. And it’s not looking good for achieving those in the short term. How affirmative are we prepared to get?

Posted in: Ideas and debates, Reflections


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