by Don Aitkin
Our hostess ran a recent thread ‘On being a Radical scholar’, and she built it on article by Dr Kate Clancy, who wrote on the difficult situation of women who are doing their best to climb the academic ladder while also looking after children. I completely sympathised with her, and could identify with the stories that she heard at the Purdue conference that had prompted her essay.
As a former university president I could have added a dozen similar stories from Australian experience. But in my university we had solved some, though by no means all, of the problems Dr Clancy referred to. When I came to the University of Canberra in 1991 it already possessed 50 percent female academic staff. Its Chancellor was a woman, as was the acting president, and two other deans. I was able to build on that base. As its president, I found one of the most engaging aspects of the university to be the equal numerical balance of men and women, which makes our community life the most civilised of any university I have known anywhere in the world. At the same time I am deeply conscious that when I left twelve years later the proportion of women at the more senior levels was no better than when I arrived, though of course the numbers were larger.
What follows is part of a valedictory address I gave to my staff at the end of my term, and that was eleven years ago. So some of what I wrote then has no doubt been passed by newer research and writing. Nonetheless, I think it bears a good deal on the issues that Drs Clancy and Curry have referred to, and it does bear, as you can infer, on the central issue for us interested in this website: what is it that we actually know about climate? I have done a little editing to remove local material, but ‘current orthodoxy’ in the next paragraph refers to the way I thought things were in 2001.
I have been interested in what used to be called the ‘equality of the sexes’ debate since the 1960s. My mother was a proto-feminist, and I still find that women of spirit and aspiration are likely to be people I would seek as friends. I do have male friends, but I sense, with most of them, an innate competitive spirit that can get in the way of close friendship. I supported, and still support, the efforts of women to obtain proper recognition for their contribution to our society, and for equality of consideration whatever the domain in which that consideration is sought. But long study, continuous observation and some reasonably wide reading are pushing me to want to depart a little from what I think is current orthodoxy. In what follows I hope that no one will think that my broad-brush characterisations necessarily apply to themselves or anyone they know well; an ‘80/20 rule’ operates whenever one engages in this sort of general talk, as is unavoidable now. One more thing: this subject really requires comprehensive treatment. I think I could do it justice if I had the time, for it fascinates me. But I have little time, so I recognise that my treatment will be too cursory, and for that I apologise in advance.
It may help if I digress for a moment to talk about intelligence. I grew up with the notion that only a small proportion of people was really intelligent, and that IQ tests told you where everybody was on the intelligence continuum; fortunately, as I thought at the time, people who went to university were part of that small proportion. My whole working life has produced one powerful example after another to suggest something much more basic: that all human beings are intelligent, and that there are many forms of intelligence, or, if you like, many intelligences. If it were not so we could not be educating half the 18-year-old cohort at university (now or later). We know that opportunity, preparation and motivation are the principal factors preventing the other half from being here as well.
In similar vein, for much of the last thirty years I have assumed that men and women are essentially the same, that culture, habit and ‘patriarchy’ combine to make men dominant, and that a truly civilised and democratic society would ensure that professions and occupations and positions of power were open to all, to women no less than to men. I am still onside with the moral thrust of that perception, but I no longer start with the same assumption. It has become plain to me that men and women are different in crucial respects, and some important consequences flow from these differences.
For me, the central differences flow from major variations in brain architecture, which we have come to know about through the application of magnetic resonance imaging. I should say at once that the research I am referring does not automatically lead to the points I shall be making. Research findings are always conjectural, at least if you follow the reasoning of Popper, which on the whole I do. At the moment I find this research persuasive, though I claim no more than that. I should also say that the outcomes of this research can be dismaying to any men who read the work. Women turn out to be able to do many things at once, while men are quite limited. Lyndon Johnson’s famous quip about Gerald Ford, that he was unable to do two fairly common things at the same time, could apply to most men, including of course Lyndon Johnson. If you will allow the metaphor, the male brain is constructed so that there are a number of rooms over a vat of energy or capacity to act, but the occupant of the brain, so to speak, can only be in any one of the rooms at any time. This leads to two familiar consequences: one, that men can bring a great deal of power and energy to a single problem and two, that they find it difficult to do anything else while they’re doing that. Women use many different parts of their brain all the time, and all of the rooms are connected to each other, as well as to the vat of energy or capacity. In physiological terms, the inter-connections between the hemispheres of the brain are much bigger and better developed. It puzzles a woman that a man cannot watch television and listen to her at the same time: she can watch television, listen to him, hold the baby, make dinner and if necessary answer the telephone as well. She is, in a temporal sense, multi-skilled. He can do all those things, but not at the same time, and if it must be at the same time, not at all well.
Another central difference that cannot yet be explained through brain architecture, though there is undoubtedly something there, is in the mental construction of what life is about. Conventionally, these obvious differences are explained in two ways, first by observation, in that they seem to apply in virtually all human societies, past and present, and secondly by inference from evolution: they must have arisen through natural selection over the last million years. I was taught as a young social scientist not to use the same body of data to derive my hypotheses and also to test them, and that makes me a little apprehensive about these explanations. But they also seem plausible to me, and I therefore put them forward.
Again I will use metaphor. Men appear to construct their picture of the world in competitive terms, as a Game, if you like. The Game has rules, the object of the Game is to win, and great and desirable consequences follow from winning — power, status, wealth and women, most obviously. Once you adopt this perspective, you can see it applying everywhere. War is the ultimate Game, big business is the current peaceful alternative (read the sub-heads of the business sections of any paper and see how often metaphors about the Game recur), organised sport requires only to be mentioned, and so on. I still have a community responsibility in the area of road safety: there can be no doubt that men are much less safe on the roads than women, because they have a much greater tendency than women to see the road and the motor vehicle in terms of competition and winning. I can tell you that this pattern is as obvious in Ho Chi Minh City, as it is in London or Los Angeles. One of the most depressing things about the recent fuss about the proposed new medical school was how the press always referred to it in Game terms, that is, it had to be a Win for someone and a Loss for someone else. The proper purpose, context and output of the medical school were hardly mentioned. Interest lay only in which university should get it. ‘Loser’ is a current pejorative among males, though why someone who loses should be categorised as someone of no account is not immediately obvious, especially to women.
For women the ruling metaphor is the Relationship, which is much less about winning than about good outcomes and, by extension, about harmony. Although there is an extensive array of women’s sports, which are taken seriously by those who take part in them, it is hard to see the Game as having any concrete existence for women outside sport. I am much more tentative in offering this metaphor as an explanatory device, and I am conscious of a colleague’s warning to me that no matter how good a feminist I became I could never be a woman! Nonetheless, for forty years or so I have watched men being Competitors and women being Collaborators, and the Relationship metaphor for women seems to me to be an accurate one.
What has all this to do with any university, you might want to ask. My short answer is that the university, like all institutions in our society, has been largely defined in male terms, and thus as a Game. I am most conscious of this in an area in which I have spent a very long time: the business of research funding. Research grants schemes are all about winning, and great virtue comes from gaining a grant: one has a new and important entry on the c.v., promotion is greatly assisted, one can buy pieces of equipment for one’s own use or travel to distant places, one’s general status is enhanced. To me this is a classic Game. Since the research is being done with other people’s money you might think that there is an implied contract, and that the outcomes of the research will be scrutinised to see if the contract has been honoured. Not a bit of it. Those running such schemes usually have to be pressed into looking at outcomes at all. For the research community the outcome is tested when the peers in the peer review scheme decide whether or not to give the applicant another grant. One critic of the system has said mordantly that the only certain outcome of publicly-funded research is a further research grant application. After half a century in this system I have come to the view that it is fundamentally wasteful of money and ought to be replaced, but I do not have to tell you that it is fiercely defended, overwhelmingly by men, who are its overwhelming beneficiaries.
I have noticed that women are generally more interested in outcomes. ‘Why are we doing this?’ or ‘What are we trying to achieve’ are questions that are frequently asked by women. For men success (or winning) is usually a sufficient incentive. Women are likely to go past that explanation and ask what will happen as a result of the success or win. That is not a question that men find easy to answer; indeed such a question for us is often a puzzle in itself.
The value system of the modern university is too heavily male, in my view. Some of that has recently been forced on us by our political masters, who have enshrined ‘competition’ as the way to go. As I have indicated, I think that ‘competition’ is a very male approach to life. My own preference is for collaboration, which I see as much more a female value. Our University works so well as a community because it has many women staff members, academic and general, who at the crunch will make an extra effort to gain a good general outcome even at the sacrifice of their own careers. Some men will do that, too, but it is less common. I have chaired the equal opportunity committee since my arrival, and equity of all kinds is a strongly held personal value of mine. A senior woman in this university has written to me on another matter recently and said in passing that in her view hers was ‘a happy and collegial workplace, where it is a pleasure to come to work’. She went on to add, ‘There is no “glass ceiling” here, and I think she is right.
But in some respects I think we have gone as far as we can go within the present value system. I have tried especially hard to secure women as departmental chairs, but I have come across what I see as a very female resistance, in which the general good of family, partners, children and social setting has priority over personal advancement. Anyone who has served on senior selection committees will know that it is common for us to be interviewing a man (and he will be one of the three or four applicants we are interviewing in this final stage) who may be offered this job and has not yet even discussed with his partner their proposed move to our city! I know that executive search firms find it especially hard to locate appointable women who even want the highest jobs in industry, because the way the duties are defined puts them off. In my view, the way these jobs are defined is overwhelmingly male: power, status and wealth are the male incentives. A woman will ask what she could achieve if she had the job, whereas a man will see the achievement simply as having the job. A man will apply for promotion because some other man is doing so, or because ‘you’ve got to be in it to win it’, or just on the off-chance — just as men will apply for jobs they haven’t the faintest hope of getting. Generally women will not do so even when they would be strong contenders. Fortunately, the mentoring system we set up is beginning to deal effectively with that attitude.
If we are to attract more women to senior positions we will have to learn how to redefine the posts and their responsibilities. In the same way, if we are to attract more women to studies in engineering, we will have to redefine what engineering is about. It is men who are fascinated with things, how they work and how to make them go faster or better in some particular way. Women are much more instrumental. A car is there to get them from point A to point B; it is not an extension of their ego in the same fashion as is the case for men. As for computers and other machines, women see them as being there for their use; they are not much interested in pulling them apart to see what makes them tick. This does not mean that women are less capable of using machines. All the evidence from road safety statistics points to men’s over-estimating their own level of skill, while women have a more accurate sense of their skill level, and stay within it. Indeed, it is probable that at the margin women generally have higher skills, since they can cope with more variables at the same time than men can. I am told that the US Navy has found that women pilots are better than their male counterparts in two very tricky activities, refuelling in the air at night, and landing on an aircraft-carrier deck in stormy seas. The person who told me that, the CEO of a large mining company, also told me that mining companies prefer women to men as drivers of the 150 tonne dump trucks, because on average a truck that has had a women driver lasts 10,000 hours longer than one driven by a man. I don’t have to tell you why that would be.
These reactions of mine are not an attack on women or on feminism, and I would be disappointed if they were construed in that way. No more are they a denunciation of men, although there are moments when in disgust at yet another mindless piece of murder or brutality committed by one of my fellow men, I want to confine men to the domain of organised sports of all kinds and hand the running of the world over to women (who in every society are hugely under-represented as well in the lists of those who use guns and violence to gain their ends). I think that it is overwhelmingly likely that we men are as we are through a million or so years of natural selection, and that the civilisation of mankind in the last 10,000 years has been an attempt, by thoughtful men as well as by apprehensive women, to overcome the aggressive, competitive spirit of men and convert that single-minded energy into peaceful and useful outcomes. While I will go on searching for and supporting women for the most senior jobs, I do not think that making it easier for women to be more like men will assist the process of converting male single-mindedness into socially useful outcomes, which is essential if humanity is to survive. Rather, I think we need to work on ways to emphasise and accredit the instinctive values that women hold, which are also in large part the outcome of that very long story of homo sapiens. I would like to see nursing and early childhood education, for example, given the same extrinsic valuation as finance, advertising or running things. I think I will be waiting for some time, but I think I can see a shift coming.
No university can by itself change our society, or even the higher education system, but if you agree with what I am saying we can at least begin to move in a challenging direction. We should think again about what we are trying to do, how we can achieve most effectively good outcomes for our students and for ourselves. We should think again about what ‘merit’ is in our university context, and find new measures of it. We should celebrate each other, and recognise that all good outcomes are obtained collaboratively. We could even start to re-imagine and redesign courses so that they attract women students in greater number. The great asset we have is that this is a most civilised and thoughtful community, and it is so because men and women here are in about the same proportion that obtains in the wider community, and because our numbers and our environment bring out the best in each other. This is not a university dominated by competing male egos, at least in my judgment, and one reason is that there are sufficient women present to reduce that ego clash and divert it into useful outcomes. In this way, too, we are something of a model for the system. All universities would be better if their gender balance were like ours.