Gender Equity in the Workplace: An Interview with Professor Cordelia Fine

Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Cordelia Fine, is well-known for her research into science, sex and gender. While her earlier research involved critiquing the science of sex differences, lately she has turned to issues of gender equality in the workplace. This research led to her recent invitation to join former Prime Minister Julia Gillard at Brisbane’s Women of the World festival, which was unfortunately cancelled due to the COVID pandemic. Samara Greenwood spoke with Cordelia about her research.

How did you first become involved in gender-related research?

Thirteen years ago, my two children were both preschoolers, and I was working as a part-time research associate on a project in the newly established field of ‘neuroethics.’ It was also a period in my life when I read a lot of parenting books, and some of the books I read make very dubious claims about ‘hardwired’ sex differences in the brain.

I started to look at other popular books on sex differences (for teachers, and business leaders, for example), and saw the same issues over and over – namely, old-fashioned gender stereotypes dressed up in the language of neuroscience. Troubled by this phenomenon, I wrote an article for the inaugural issue of the journal Neuroethics. The title of the article, ‘Will working mothers’ brains explode?‘ was inspired by one of the examples featured in the article. This was the claim, in the New York Times bestseller The Female Brain, that working mothers experience “reduced brainpower” for children and work, due to an innervating neurological “tug-of-war because of overloaded brain circuits”.

Could you tell us a little about your research on gender equity in the workplace?

Over the past ten years my research has focused on critically examining scientific explanations for our sex-segregated workplaces.

For example, a common argument for why we see so much horizontal sex-segregation across different industries, like nursing or construction for example, is because prenatal hormones wire different interests in women and men. Or, people make the claim that the reason why we see vertical sex-segregation in leadership positions is that men have evolved to compete and take risks to a greater extent than women.

But, at the same time, arguments about differences between the sexes are often put forward to argue why we need less sex-segregation, particularly in leadership.  For example, many popular books argue that businesses can gain a competitive advantage when they leverage women’s unique skills and perspectives.

 

 

Horizontal and Vertical sex segregation in the Australian workplace, November 2019. Tables from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.
Horizontal and Vertical sex segregation in the Australian workplace, November 2019. Tables from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

Both sets of arguments draw on an essentialist view that women and men are ‘hard-wired’ to be fundamentally different. This view is empirically inaccurate and is typically associated with attitudes supportive of the gender status quo.

For example, in research co-authored with Professor Nick Haslam from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences and Dr Lea Skewes at Aarhus University, we found that people who subscribe to an essentialist view were more comfortable with traditional sex roles and sex discrimination, and more likely to express negative moral feelings in response to politicians whose power-seeking behaviour violated gender norms for their sex.

Business case arguments also obviously overshadow matters of social justice with instrumental arguments focused on profits and productivity. Some suggest this is the strength of these kinds of arguments – that they align women’s advancement with managerial values and interests. But there’s very little empirical evidence as to how effective these kinds of arguments are.

Building on this background, what does your current research involve?

Together with Victor Sojo from the Centre for Workplace Leadership and Holly Lawford-Smith from Philosophy, we have begun a research project exploring three key questions: why does gender diversity in the workplace matter, according to the philosophical and social science literature? why do everyday Australian employees think it matters? (this work is being done with SHAPS PhD student Morgan Weaving); and, finally, how does this compare with narratives in the Australian media? This third project is in collaboration with Professor Karin Verspoor from the School of Computing and Information Systems (University of Melbourne).

Our answer to the first question was published this year in the journal Social Issues & Policy Review. The other research is ongoing, and we’re very pleased to have VicHealth join us as an industry partner for the third part of the project.

In a recent article, you and Victor Sojo said that addressing “uncomfortable themes of power, systemic inequity, and bias – not business cases and economic arguments” may be the most effective way to generate change. Could you expand on why?

There is much that is persuasive and important about business case and economic arguments for greater gender equality. But we also shouldn’t be too quick to assume that these are the best or only ways of motivating change, or of overcoming resistance to such change.

As one of my former colleagues from the Melbourne Business School, Amanda Sinclair, has argued, the business case approach relies on “a misunderstanding that values and beliefs are changed by rational economic argument”. If only we can collate enough evidence of profit enhancement – so the logic goes – then the “economic incentives will magically remove long-standing racist or discriminatory attitudes”. This, of course, is such an implausible model of human motivation that “not even the economists believe this”.

In line with this, our preliminary survey of Australian employees finds that matters of justice are commonplace in responses to our questions about striving for, and achieving, greater gender diversity in the workplace.

How do you see this research impacting business?

While a lot of research has explored the factors contributing to horizontal and vertical forms of sex-segregation in the workplace, little is currently known about Australians’ attitudes towards gender diversity, what kinds of reasons, arguments or experiences are most effective at motivating engagement and action, or reducing resistance, hostility and backlash, and how this is moderated by individual and demographic factors.

This currently leaves policy makers, HR professionals and advocates trying to effect change and initiatives with little evidence on which to base communication strategies. Our research project seeks to answer some of those important questions.

Does your third-year subject Gender Diversity in the Workplace cover similar themes?

We do cover business case arguments in the subject, as well as critiques of that approach, but of course the subject overall covers much more ground than this.

We approach the topic from philosophical, empirical and practical perspectives (the students and I are very fortunate to have philosopher Klaus Jahn as a co-coordinator for the subject). We also look at issues arising in the workplace for gender and sexual minorities.

My vision for the subject was to help prepare students – both intellectually and practically – for the often-heated issues, questions and controversies relating to issues of gender diversity in the workplace.

How does your research relate to broader work in History and Philosophy of Science?

Feminist perspectives on science have argued for the importance of gender diversity for scientific objectivity, knowledge production and legitimacy. As they have persuasively argued, the benefits and importance of gender representation can be profound.

Professor Cordelia Fine is the author of A Mind of its Own, Delusions of Gender (a Guardian and London Evening Standard book of the year and a Washington Post non-fiction Book of the year) and Testosterone Rex (winner of the Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize 2017), and was the recipient of the 2018 Edinburgh Medal, a prestigious award that recognises scientists who have excelled in their field and contributed significantly to our understanding of humanity.  Cordelia co-ordinates the second-year HPS subject Sex in Science (HPSC 20023) and third-year subject Gender Diversity in the Workplace (GEND 30005).

Feature Image: Cordelia Fine. Photographer: Paul Burston, University of Melbourne.