Follow the Leader?

30 September 2015 - By: Sarah Blackford

Follow the Leader?

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By Sarah Blackford

Attracting over 10% of the conference delegation (with about 10% male diners), our guest speaker this year was Dr Susan Singer, Division Director of Undergraduate Education at NSF and Laurence McKinley Gould Professor, in the Biology and Cognitive Science Departments at Carleton College, USA).

“We don’t all have to be three-star generals to lead”, declared Susan Singer, as she challenged her audience of around 100 meeting delegates, to identify leaders in photographs from a recent event she had attended at the US Congress on Capitol Hill. 

Those pictured were community college students and faculty members and Congress representatives, who had come together for a prize giving as result of a national NSF competition to solve a ‘grand challenge’. Many, like me, assumed some of the ‘mature’ men to be leaders when, in fact, they were students. But then, as Susan pointed out, didn’t they qualify as leaders, since they had come up with the ideas which had led to their team winning the competition? Weren’t some of the women students pictured also leaders – they had led the communication of the project. Susan’s point was clear – we all make assumptions about leaders and leadership.

“I want you to think about the multiple ways that we all lead”, said Susan, as she continued to engage the audience, illustrating her point with examples from her own career: as a faculty member for 30 years she has led from within, finding ways to build coalitions. Chairing the department required a different approach to that as lead principle investigator for teaching, and chairing policy committees, with the aim of getting agreement amongst stakeholders from very different backgrounds, meant excellent diplomacy and negotiating skills were paramount.

So what about our own leadership? Turns out, it’s multi-directional: “There’s always someone who’s above you, so we all have to manage up”, said Susan, “but we have to manage across and down too. The challenge is to be effective in all those roles”. But what does it take to be an effective leader? Susan went on to present an analysis1 carried out by the US-based consulting firm, McKinsey, which reveals that 89% of what is needed for successful leadership comes from just four factors: (1) being supportive of others; (2) getting stuff done; (3) solving problems effectively and (4) seeking different perspectives. “This leads us to where we are this evening”, said Susan, referring to the fourth factor and citing a further article published in Scientific American2. “Leaders need to be inclusive and engage with a whole range of people to work on problems together. Recruiting people with different backgrounds, ethnicity and gender is not just the right thing to do it makes you smarter as a group!” Susan followed this up with a compelling example: when airbags were first introduced into cars, who died as a result of them not being tested properly? - short people, mainly women and children. The reason for this: the engineers who had designed the system were all men over six feet tall, so they had a limited frame of reference.

Turning her attention to academic science, Susan referred to a report (3), recently released by the National Academies Press, which analysed what it takes to make a science team effective. “Whether it’s a research lab team, committee or out-of-industry team”, she said, “we need to get better at working together. We live in a world where convergence is very important and, as biologists, we really must engage fully with others, such as engineers, mathematicians and physical scientists, to solve global problems around energy, health, environment and food security, not just borrow their tools”.

Women are part of this more diverse group dynamic, which means that further work needs to be done to tackle ‘second generation bias’. That is, an implicit or unconscious bias which, many studies have revealed, resides as much in women as it does in men. It influences award and progression evaluations such as essay and exam grading of students, staff hiring and salary or promotion decisions. Women communicate differently to men and can find it harder to ‘fight their corner’, as they are likely to be viewed negatively as much by women as by their male counterparts. On the up-side, Susan cited one particular research project, developed by two academics, Ann Austin (Michigan State) and Sandra Laursen (University of Colorado, Boulder). The StratEGIC toolkit(4) contains short briefs with an analysis of their impact on improving the equality and diversity of the work environment. Strategies include providing faculty grants, formal mentoring activities, developing institutional leaders, support for dual career couples, strengthened accountability structures and enhanced visibility for women and women’s issues, with narratives from institutions revealing the impact of different combinations of those interventions.

Susan’s talk certainly provided plenty of food for thought and so, following on from a delicious dessert, giving our diners time to first digest Susan’s information and discuss amongst themselves their own experiences and opinions, a vibrant Q&A session ensued, chaired by the SEB+ convenor for Equality and Diversity, Teresa Valencak. Transparency policies were highlighted as a way to help women to achieve salary parity, for example by providing a salary range for a particular position; shortlisting the strongest initially rejected female candidate for a job and comparing her with the weakest selected male during the interview process was shown to be working well at one institution, whilst actively encouraging female colleagues to apply for senior roles was cited by a head of department, who struggles to short list female applicants as none have put themselves forward.

This brought the conversation round to the broader issues of society and societal expectations. “We need to make the workplace more flexible and adaptable to the needs of women and others with family commitments”, said one delegate, followed by a comment on the psychological effects engendered by bias being planted in the minds of children from an early age. Catalysing the discussion further, Amelia Benson, SEB’s former office administrator (now working for Marie Stopes International), made the point that if childcare were made a parental, rather than a women’s issue, it would benefit everyone and allow couples to more equally bring up their children. Mary Traynor, managing editor of one of SEB’s journals, took this ‘baton’ from Amelia and challenged the audience to think beyond gender: citing her son’s difficulty trying to negotiate paternity leave with his university in preparation for the arrival of his first child, she received a round of applause by proposing that the debate should move on: “We need to stop talking about gender equality and start accepting people of all diversities”, she said. “Individuals do not always fit easily into gender stereotypes and discrimination at work happens on many different levels. It’s time to accept people for who they are, not for who we expect them to be. We need equality for all and support for all kinds of people and parents”.

Mary’s comments rounded off the discussion perfectly, exemplifying the title of Susan’s presentation, “Leading change and building coalitions” and addressing one of SEB+’s recent developments. We want to build on our women in science dinner and start to underpin all of SEB’s activities with an equality and diversity agenda. With that in mind, we invited our delegates to leave their name and thoughts on postcards for us to collect and collate. I can tell you now that one of the most popular suggestions on the cards proposed re-naming our event “Diversity Dinner”. If you’ve enjoyed reading this article or attending any of our previous events, I recommend you join us there next year in Brighton.



Category: Career Development
Sarah Blackford

Sarah Blackford

Sarah Blackford is the Head of Education and Public Affairs at the SEB and the editor of the SEB magazine. As a qualified careers adviser and MBTI practitioner, Sarah provides career development and support for SEB members and the wider scientific community. Sarah is also an active member within SEB+, focusing on a number of initiatives aimed at improving gender equality and diversity in the science field.