During my time in Cambridge, virtually every invitation I received to join a University committee was prefaced by the disclaimer that “we need a woman”. This had the dual effect of making me feel, on the one hand, obliged to accept and, on the other, less empowered to voice an opinion. In case I, or my colleagues, might forget why I was there, the papers for one senior promotions committee had an ‘f’ next to my name—not ‘F’ for Fiona but ‘f’ for female. When I complained, the person who took the blame was a (female) member of the secretarial staff and not the (male) chair of the committee.
And on the other hand there are the ones who pretend to be unaware of gender altogether.
While I was working in Cambridge I was involved in several rounds of recruitment of junior group leaders, which were notable not only for a lack of female appointments, but also for the lack of perception that this was a problem. When I raised the issue I frequently received—by way of justification—the response “I can’t tell the difference between a man and a woman”.
Oh goody, it’s “I don’t see color” in another form.
Being “gender blind” might be a legitimate aspiration for scientists, but in my experience it was a justification for discriminating against women. And what made the situation so dispiriting was that none of the men present during these discussions ever challenged the situation, or asked the same questions as me.
So, what is to be done? While academic institutions may genuinely aspire to increase the number of female professors, their prospects of success are low unless covert discrimination is discussed openly and tackled.
Are the prospects for that looking good?