A conversation on gender equity and allyship in STEM: an interview with Jeremy Sanders MAE

A conversation on gender equity and allyship in STEM: an interview with Jeremy Sanders MAE

As part of our work with the CALIPER project we interview people passionate about gender equality. In our latest interview, Jeremy Sanders MAE talks about his personal inclusion agenda and setting an example as a male ally.

About Jeremy Sanders MAE

Professor Jeremy Sanders CBE FRS MAE is a distinguished British chemist, Emeritus Professor at the University of Cambridge, and a member of both Academia Europaea and the Royal Society. With a notable career spanning various fields, including NMR spectroscopy and supramolecular chemistry, in 2009 he received the prestigious Davy Medal in recognition of his significant contributions to the scientific community.

Beyond his research achievements, he has actively advocated for women in STEM, positioning himself as a male ally and a vocal supporter of gender equality, and equity and inclusion. As the Chair of the Royal Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, he has led initiatives to improve career opportunities for women in science. Notably, the Committee’s work includes work on unconscious bias, commissioning reports on ethnicity and disability in STEM and outreach work on bringing ethnic minority children into STEM.

Committed to fostering an inclusive environment, Professor Sanders has run workshops on Advancing Women’s Careers in STEM and collaborated with senior academics to champion the progression of female staff at the University of Cambridge. His influence extends beyond academia, as he was invited to testify for Diversity in STEM before the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in 2022.

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Thank you for agreeing to talk to us about gender equality, or as you prefer to say, ‘equity and inclusion’. Can you tell us about the difference between these two phrases, and why you prefer to use the latter?

“When I first became interested in this area, the biggest problem that one could see is that although women are 50% of the population, there were very few women with successful careers in academia, and particularly in the sciences. When we started looking into this issue 20 years ago, the focus was on improving equality of opportunity; making sure that there were no formal barriers for women to be successful in applying for jobs, pursuing their careers and becoming promoted. That meant making sure that the rules didn’t disadvantage the people who have taken maternity leave and didn’t disadvantage people who needed to work part-time temporarily or more long-term. It was all about equality of opportunity.

I think what we’ve come to realise over the last 20 years is that equality of opportunity does not necessarily lead to equality of outcomes. Now it’s much more about thinking how to include people, which means taking account of their cultural and personal circumstances in a way that we weren’t thinking of 20 years ago. We talked a lot about diversity, which is all about recognising that people are different, but I prefer the word ‘inclusion’ because diversity emphasises difference. I think what we need to do as a society and what we need to do as institutions, is to be inclusive in the sense of recognising that people have different routes through their careers. They have different attitudes, and they have a different understanding of language. One of the things that’s becoming clear is that even the way we word advertisements and the language we use can be either very off-putting, or can be welcoming and inclusive. So that’s why I prefer to use the word ‘inclusion’.”

Can you share with us your motivation and journey in becoming an advocate for gender equity and inclusion in STEM fields?

“I think it goes back to my childhood. My grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, fleeing persecution. We didn’t have much money, but my parents saw education as the way out of poverty. I grew up on a council estate and went to a comprehensive school. I couldn’t come to Cambridge as an undergraduate, but I came here to do my PhD, and as I worked my way up through the system and I found myself on more and more senior committees, I became aware that for somebody like me – not interested in sport, who had no interest in drinking in a pub because of my family background –  I was somewhat excluded from the ‘boys’ club’ sitting around the boardroom table. The bonding between men would mostly be about football, rugby, cricket and drinking. And I wasn’t interested in any of that. So, I found myself identifying more with women. Of course, there are other men like me, but broadly speaking there’s quite a gendered set of attitudes. But that’s one of the things which really triggered my interest in how institutions make decisions.

One of the things I became aware of in talking to senior women in the University, was that they felt that senior men would make the important decisions about the future of the University, and the future of individuals, in informal groups. They would be bonding after work, in the pub for example. That’s a slight oversimplification, but there’s a sense that you can make decisions informally that then get ratified by a formal committee. And that excludes people who are not in the ‘club’, and that felt to me very wrong. I had a sense of justice and injustice from my family upbringing, so that got me very interested in the whole question of how we bring more women into decision-making and making things easier for women – or indeed for men like me – to succeed, without being part of these informal networks that might make us uncomfortable, or where we might even be unwelcome.”

How would you define the concept of male allyship, and why is it important for men to actively support and champion women in these fields?

“When I first became interested in this area, there was a group of senior women who were agitating for better opportunities and for more equality. They were largely ignored by the University for some time and in part, it’s because quite a few of them were frustrated that they weren’t successful professors. They didn’t have big research careers, and whilst there may be a variety of reasons for that, it became clear that they did not have much agency or influence. When I was Pro-Vice Chancellor, it became clearer to me that it was easier for men to influence this agenda. This means men who are in positions of authority and influence, and who cannot be dismissed as having some private grudge or resentment. In a male dominated institution – and I don’t only mean the men sitting around the table, but an institution which has grown up over, in the case of Cambridge, hundreds of years – with a male way of thinking and male culture and language, it’s much easier for men to influence the agenda and achieve change than it is for women. I’m not saying that’s a happy situation, but that is my assessment, and that’s why being a male ally is so powerful. It is, of course, uncomfortable to be seen as a man in charge of an agenda that is trying to empower women. It’s actually also quite a powerful position.”

What motivated you to take on the role of Chair of the Royal Society’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, and how does it align with your personal commitment to advancing gender equity and inclusion?

“When I got a call asking me to chair the Royal Society’s Diversity Committee (as it was called then), my first response was: why would you want an old white man to chair this Committee? The two previous Chairs had been very distinguished and influential women, and so whilst it would be a privilege to follow them, why would you want me? The answer I got from the person who approached me was, ‘The council will listen to you, and you have authority.’ And so I decided yes, I would do it. As for what motivated me, I already knew the equality and diversity staff at the Royal Society as I’d worked with them on another project and I liked them as individuals. The Royal Society is the UK’s premier learned society in STEM, and if one has an opportunity to influence it and the way it operates, then that seemed to me an important way to be able to contribute.

At the moment, the mean age of fellows at the Royal Society is 75 and almost all of us are white men. In the last year or so since I’ve been in this role, we have as a group been successful in changing some of the rules around how Fellows of our Society are elected. If you look at this year’s 2023 elected Fellows, they are much more diverse than they have been historically. That’s been achieved by changing some rules, and above all we’re changing some attitudes as to what excellence looks like. How do we define excellence and can we more broad-minded about it? That’s one of the things a diversity and inclusion committee does, essentially pressuring the Royal Society to change the way it behaves over its fellowships and to change the way that it behaves in the way that it gives out grants.

The other thing that we do is a lot of outreach. We do a lot of work around ethnic minority children and trying to bring them into STEM, and we’re becoming more and more interested in socio-economic deprivation. If I can come back to your original question – why am I interested in gender equality? – I would say now I’m at least as interested in how we deal with the deficit in ethnic minorities, particularly the black community which is very underrepresented in STEM. Not that the gender problem is solved in its entirety, but I’m also very interested in outreach. How do we understand and improve the situation of those who are socio-economically deprived, who are also very underrepresented in STEM? Social mobility has not improved in recent years, and it may have gone backwards. That’s all part of my personal inclusion agenda.”

Could you highlight a particular success story or accomplishment related to your work in advancing women’s careers in STEM that you are especially proud of?

“Success in this area is mostly incremental, in small steps. One achievement that I am very proud of is from about 10 years ago in Cambridge, the Returning Carers scheme, which supports academics who have taken six months or more leave for family caring responsibilities. When they come back into their career, we provide them with small grants that enable them to boost their research career. For example, they can go to a conference and take their child. The majority of people who take six months to a year are taking parental leave, and the majority of those are women. We can provide them with a grant, so if they want to go to a conference abroad, we can provide the financial support so that a carer can go with them and they can take their children. They can attend the conference, and they can also be a parent. We don’t mind whether the carer is a spouse or another family member, or a professional carer. It’s a trivial cost, but it enables that individual to get back into the conference circuit and to be visible again in the research world. These are small grants, but they’ve really given a boost to the people who have taken them. Inevitably 95% of those are women returning from maternity leave, but some are men returning from paternity leave, and we’ve had cases of men returning to work from having looked after a partner, parent or a child who was very ill. One of the points I would make is that the scheme was open to everybody. I’m not a great fan of schemes that are restricted to just women, because that generates resentment and a backlash from a conservative male establishment. It’s more beneficial to create a scheme which is open to everybody, even if you know that the vast majority of beneficiaries will be minorities.”

How can men in STEM be proactive in challenging and disrupting gender biases and stereotypes that may exist within their professional networks and institutions?

“So how can men help with this inclusion, whether it’s gender or other kinds of inclusion? I think partly, it helps if you can set an example by the way that you live. When our children were growing up my wife had a demanding lab job. We shared childcare, and I was in the fortunate position that I could often go home, look after the children following school and then go back to the lab in the evening. So it helps if you can show yourself as a positive example.

I have sometimes given presentations and seen unkeen older men in the front row getting annoyed when I say that this is partly about family culture. It’s how we bring up our children, how our children see mothers and fathers behaving at home and prioritising their family as much as their work. Partly it’s as a matter of setting an example, and partly it’s a matter of calling out bad behaviour. I do often think it’s easier for men who are in positions of authority to call out bad behaviour – that’s assuming, of course, that they are themselves behaving well – than it is for women who are not yet in a position of authority. It’s not always a comfortable or popular position to be in, and you can sometimes get a good deal of resistance from conservative men who might feel threatened. But I feel myself that it’s an important thing to do. It’s often said that when men have teenage daughters, they begin to realise the barriers that they will face. I’d like to think you don’t have to have a teenage daughter to recognise that there are barriers, and to recognise that it may be easier for men to reduce those barriers and open the doors than it is for women.”

Posted 11th September 2023. For further information please contact AECardiffHub@cardiff.ac.uk

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under Grant Agreement No 873134

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