Comment: Feedback Physics World  November 2020

Integrating and valuing the ‘extracurricular’

I recently read the statement from the Institute of Physics (IOP) entitled “Diversity and inclusion: a collective enterprise” (bit.ly/35hu7um) and was completely unsurprised by the numbers behind participation in these activities at the IOP. Women are very highly represented (compared to the number of women in the profession) in “extracurricular” activities in physics. I have seen this on a regular basis; women are always the ones most involved in all sorts of non-technical tasks – from diversity and inclusion to safety and university admissions – that should have no more or less appeal to men. Why is this?

I believe it is because these roles are not properly rewarded, and women are far more likely to pick up tasks that obviously need doing, but do not have a financial payback. The most obvious example is childcare, with far more women than men dropping out of their careers or going part-time to look after their children. Women also often do most of the housework, even in child-free households with all adults working full-time. I believe it is part of the same problem that these jobs all fall to women.

Some may be surprised to hear me describe it as a “problem” – but it most definitely is. People who do these valuable tasks to enhance their profession (and sometimes, quite directly, their employer) are rewarded far worse than you may expect and are often actually penalized. They may win external awards for their work and receive commendations from their employer’s senior managers, but none of those senior people get involved in the career progression of those hard-working people down the chain. That usually falls to their local line management, who are unlikely to be anywhere near as impressed. You can be working directly with the most senior managers in your organization on severely under-resourced tasks, but that counts for next to nothing when you apply for a promotion to even one level above graduate entry. Many STEM managers have problems delivering the work their team is supposed to, due to staff shortages. These issues might not have become so significant if someone had done more outreach work a few years previously, say, or their employer had examined its inability to hire from under-represented groups. But if the employer won’t release anyone part-time to do these tasks, the problem just gets worse in the long run.

The fact is that although these tasks need to be done, they are very rarely in anyone’s job description, and as soon as someone steps up to do them, their direct line management suddenly want anyone except a member of their team to be doing it. The person will probably have been hired to do a specific list of tasks, and although there may be a budget at a high level for things like outreach, each individual is usually hired on a business case that assumes they will be spending 100% of their working time on technical or managerial duties.

Someone spending a lot of time doing outreach may be contributing a lot more to the profession than someone only doing technical work, but they may be writing fewer papers as a result, and that’s going to hurt their career

It’s notable how managerial work is the exception to this – the lone, non-technical work that job profiles of a suitably high level do factor in – and is rewarded properly. Is this because it’s a male-dominated profession? Jobs done predominantly by men are often valued much more highly than those done largely by women: computer programming and HR swapped places in pay scales and prestige when their gender balances did. Care work is considered “unskilled”, which is clearly nonsense, and most is done by women. The majority of managers in most professions are men, and are usually paid more than the HR staff – mostly women – who write the policies telling them how to do their jobs.

Even if the suggestion that these roles are not valued because they are primarily done by women isn’t the full story, it is definitely the case that they aren’t being valued, and this is primarily affecting women. Someone spending a lot of time on, say, IOP committees or doing outreach work may be contributing a lot more to the profession than someone only doing technical work, but they may be writing fewer papers as a result, and that’s going to hurt their career.

There are some roles where people (often women) get to work on things like diversity and inclusion full time, but these jobs have their own problems. First, the reason women get involved with supporting physics is because we like physics – but doing these other roles full-time would mean no direct involvement in physics at all. Second, there tends to be a lack of variety. Serving as, say, an outreach officer is great if your sole passion is in that area, but less so if you are also interested in equality and diversity, health and safety, or the myriad of other things a technical role would expose you to. Third…I’m a nerd. The idea of working in a neurotypical environment, mainly surrounded by people with little-to-no background in science doesn’t really appeal. I find myself more comfortable in technical teams, which are often male-dominated groups, although I realize that others may not feel this way.

What I want to see is these “extracurricular” activities properly integrated into science and engineering jobs, as much as any sort of personnel or project management. The burden should not fall on women and the work should be rewarded properly so that a week of safety inspections or outreach is valued as highly as a published paper. That would either make it more appealing to men or stop it being a problematic burden.

Penny Jackson

Barrow-in-Furness, UK

fridalongstockin@gmail.com