Skating on thin ice

Last week, academics at Cambridge called on the university to change the way it appoints staff. Gloria Moss gives her take on the current system

If you’ve been following the Winter Olympics in Sochi, you may have seen the cause célèbre in the women’s figure-skating competition. The reigning Olympic gold medallist, Yuna Kim, widely acknowledged to be the Queen of figure-skating, conceded gold to Adelina Sotnikova, a 17-year-old skater described by the 2002 French ice dancing gold medalist, Gwendal Peizerat, as ‘just coming out of juniors’. Fingers have been pointed at the opaque judging system which conceals individual scores, making judges unaccountable; we have also heard of potential conflict of interest in the Russian judge’s marriage to the President of the Russian figure-skating federation in the Ukrainian judge’s previous disqualification for attempts at fixing the 1998 Nagano Olympic event.

Of course, we in academia can sit comfortably knowing that our systems of assessment are beyond reproach. Assessments by first markers are in the open, marks are internally and externally moderated and students’ work is subjected to Turnitin. We have every reason to feel smug. Or do we?  

Rumbles at Cambridge

Last week, more than 50 senior Cambridge University academics called on the institution to change the way it appoints staff, arguing that the current system favoured men, stopping women reaching their potential. The academics included heads of colleges and departments and their grievance rested on the value placed on prominently published papers or large research grants at the expense of contributions such as teaching, administration and outreach work. Smugness may creep in again with the knowledge that women’s share of professorships is below par – just 15.3% of professorships compared to 20% across UK universities – but theaverage figure is hardly cause for celebration when  women make up almost half (47.3%) of the non-professorial academic workforce.

Factors at play      

Of course, there has been much research on the factors at play, with those discussed including a ‘masculine career model’ (Knights and Richards, 2003) prioritising an uninterrupted career history and privileging personal traits such as aggression and competitiveness, widely encouraged in men but often demonised in women. Other factors discussed include the possible negative impact of marriage on careers, possible overloading of female as against male academics and the lack of favour accorded to feminist research. Some of the evidence is peer-reviewed and some is frustratingly not but a figure of 37% dissatisfaction with the fairness of equal opportunities policies, a figure reported in the recent Times Higher Education Best University Workplace survey, should give cause for concern and a drive to more in-depth research in the area. Equally of concern are the widespread disparities across the sector with lower proportions of female professors in research-intensive universities and better performance amongst universities specialising in arts and humanities subjects. The general quality of HR procedures and management in the sector, also patchy according to the survey, may be factors too.

Why this matters

The figure-skating results cause a sense of confusion, outrage and unfairness, with knock-on effects on professional success within the sector. The issues within academia have, arguably of far greater impact since the creation of new knowledge is privileged within the sector. Individuals and groups bring diverse perspectives to their work and to this extent, diversity with senior positions of universities, editorial boards and research assessment committees is all-important. My own research into unconscious bias shows its effects to be pervasive and hidden with the success criteria by differing groups often varying enormously. Just as there is no single definition of ‘good leadership’ or ‘good design’– my research shows that there are significant differences by nationality and gender – so also will there be no single definition of priority areas for research and academia. As Asiya Islam of the LSE wrote in a recent article in The Guardian, institutional and structural bias is a major factor in the problems in the sector. It is time for a major initiative in these areas and a concerted research drive to unpick the problems.                                                                                                                 

Only then can we take the high moral ground next time a Sochi-like scandal hits the headlines.

Gloria Moss is Professor of Management and Marketing at Buckinghamshire New University. She is the author of the book Gender, Design and Marketing and has a new book coming out in the Spring entitled: ‘Why men like straight lines and women like polka dots’.