To Ask or Not to Ask? A Critical Incident and Gender Equality

This week we had an interesting situation at the department when the new programme board for the computer science programmes were to be decided upon.I am a member of the department board, but did not attend this meeting due to the kick-off with the NordWit centre. However, what happened is really a critical incident worth reflecting some more on.

I work at the Department of Information Technology at Uppsala University, and we have around 26% women if you look at all employees, but there are much less women that are associate professors or full professors. If you are curious you find some figures regarding men and women in our gender equality plan, and our work with gender equality is presented by Virginia Grande in this blog post.

This is what happened in this critical incident:

The suggested programme board for the computer programme board was all male, and the board did not accept it due to gender equality. The department board hence postponed the decision related to who would be a member of this programme board.

This was followed by a discussion per mail, and a request for 1) a description of why only men were suggested, and 2) also a description of what measures had been taken to find women for the positions.

Here are some perspectives that has come up when discussing this critical incident.

My name was mentioned as one possible member of the computer science programme board. But since I have much to do, and a full calendar, they did not ask me out of kindness and consideration. Note: I do have lots of things to do, and I would probably have said no if I was asked about this job. And saying no would have taken some energy from me, as I try to be helpful (which is perhaps only fulfilling the norm). However, one should note that I have not been asked to be a part of many committees, or groups, but that could be because of many reasons.

This also is a part of a larger discussion when women are not asked out of consideration of their work situation in male dominated organisations. There is a risk, some maintain, that competent women will be drowned in unpaid work in different groups and committees, and that this will stop them in their career.

So what would be the right thing to do here? To ask women even though they have much to do (out of consideration)? That is to ask, and let them say no? Saying no on the other hand is not that easy, and it is really difficult and energy consuming to say no. Or is it better not to ask them about these kinds of positions when you know that they have many other things on the agenda?

What do you think would be a good strategy regarding this?

I would suggest that making the process a bit more transparent would help some, and to have some criteria of what kind of background you want a member of the programme board or committee to have. And perhaps asking is better than not asking, even though that would mean that one would say no to offers.

However, gender equality work is tricky and it is not always obvious what would be the right thing to do.



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