To embrace diversity, should everyone be treated equally?

Author: Toni Collis
Posted: 17 May 2013 | 14:52

In EPCC, as a mixture of mainly scientists and software developers, we are acutely aware of the gender imbalance in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)  disciplines and of the low level of academic progression for women. EPCC is part of the School of Physics & Astronomy at Edinburgh, and therefore we are involved in the Institute of Physics' Juno Project, for which the School currently holds Juno Practitioner Status. However, as we progress and try to encourage diversity among our staff, we encounter issues with positive discrimination and changing behaviours.

Some people argue that if women (or indeed any under-represented group) don't want to be in science or stay in academia then that is not something we should worry about too much. My concern is that the reason women aren't progressing is not because they don't want to be in these subjects and disciplines in general, but that the subjects and disciplines are currently unwelcoming for a variety of reasons, perhaps because the hours worked in academia are not family friendly, or maybe because of the competitive nature, or maybe something else that no one has talked about yet. What is clear is that female academics are leaving science and academia, with the recently release 'Global Gender Index' showing that in the UK only 34.6% of academic personnel are female.

One argument follows that we should be treating everyone the same. The UK has a well documented problem with gender pay gaps nationally, particularly later in careers, which develops irrespective of whether women have children, which is otherwise seen as one of the key reasons behind a pay gap. One approach that is often talked about is simply to treat everyone the same. Treating everyone identically should eliminate the pay gap, right? It should also improve the representation (and pay gap) of other minority groups, such as ethnic minorities, disabled people, etc. However, it doesn't appear to be as simple as that.

Many businesses now boast that they are a meritocracy, academia has been claiming this for far longer. Theoretically, this is a good thing. If you work hard, do your best and excel, you will achieve great things. However, if this is the case, why aren't women progressing to the highest echelons of society; to management in business, to professorial level in academia and to the cabinet (or shadow cabinet) in politics? There are many theories as to why, including (heaven forbid I say it) that women are just 'not up to it'. I'd just like to say that my own personal take on the matter is that women are most definitely 'up to it'! So what is going on?

So now we come to the diversity argument. If all forms of discrimination are eliminated (and I'm not suggesting they have been), then do we need to positively discriminate in order to allow women to 'achieve'? I would argue that no, we don't need to positively discriminate, but we do need to differentiate. Just to clarify, men and women are not the same. Shocking as it may seem to suggest this in a blog post about equality, I would advocate that we should embrace those differences. Indeed, it is the differences that mean that having more women at the top in society is a great thing. Women have a different perspective from men, not better or worse, just different. Women are 51% of the population, so it would be folly to ignore this perspective. So let's embrace those differences, if we have identified that they have the potential to be a good thing, and realise that we shouldn't treat everyone the same.

Men and women are not the same. Different faiths have different beliefs. People are just different. Should we treat everyone identically, assuming that everyone can and will eat meat, has the same sexual orientation, has the same physical attributes regardless of gender, health or disability? Pushing everyone into the same box, while strictly fair, assumes that we all want to be treated the same. I would argue that we should respect peoples individual beliefs, requirements and personality.

As soon as we start treating people with a recognition of difference do we break the requirements of equality? Do women and men need to be treated identically? Should we acknowledge that a parent or someone with a dependent might need to be more flexible in their working arrangements, and if we do should we allow the same flexibility to everyone? If women are paid less than men because they are less likely to ask for a pay rise, should society address this by encouraging women more or by making the hurdles easier to navigate? Should workplaces strive to be less confrontational to encourage women to excel?

In embracing equality and diversity in the workplace, these are questions everyone needs to face up to, understand and investigate.
EPCC, as part of the School of Physics & Astronomy, is currently preparing our entry for Project Juno Champion status and Athena Swan Silver, recognising our commitment to equality and diversity and promoting better practice in the workplace for all employees.


Toni Collis, EPCC

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