Who should get promoted?
There's a letter in this week's THE, from 50 Cambridge academics, which may interest some readers. It's about the "gender gap" in academic promotions. The basic message (which I am no doubt crudifying) is that the current criteria (formal and practical) for promotion, let's say from Reader to Professor, are too much framed in terms of research publication and research grants, and not enough in terms of teaching, administration, and various other forms of service -- and that this tends to dis-favour women applicants.
I'm hugely pleased that this is all getting a good public airing. And it also raises some interesting questions about how promotions work, or dont, outside areas where there are measurable targets/archievments.
I mean I can see that in commercial selling it might seem fairly simple. Rewards and/or promotion presumably correlate more or less directly with profits achieved. Though even there, there must be some tricky areas. No one wants to promote the guys whose vast sales figures were achieved by terrorising old ladies out of their life savings -- nor those whose only achievement was to clinch the final deal after months of hard work by others (one suspects there could be a gender gap there).
But it's inevitably harder when a whole series of value judgements are at stake, and however hard HR departments might try, cases can't be reduced to box-ticking.
In the case of Arts and Humanities academics (and it may be different in the sciences), even if we stick to research alone, the issues are infinitely tricky. It's partly a question of how we evaluate a 20 page article, by a lone scholar beavering away in the library -- one that really changes the whole area that it is discussing -- vs a big, million pound research grant financed project, that produces a couple of extremely long, very useful, but un-ground changing tomes. I know which side I am prone to come down on, but I also know that others differ.
But even less easy to figure is what work is going to prove to last the longest. It's all very well making an apparently ground breaking splash today; but what do we think if in 20 years time it has all proved to be a dead end, a wrong turning, or quite forgotten. I remember talking at a conference in Cambridge a few years back and asking a pretty senior humanities audience (most of them loaded with hon. degrees etc) to reflect on whose work they thought woud last. It was clear from the looks on most of the men's faces that they had never really considered that it might not the theirs. But a trip to the old shelves of many a library will reveal plenty of once fashionable contributions now more or less on the dusta cart (or, to be more charitable, awaiting rediscovery).
As for the teaching and administration, I am right behind the signatories of the letter. It is mad to suggest that teaching the next generation to change their minds about things is NOT in some senses the equivalent of research.(One of my proudest moments was when, after a supervision, a guy popped his head back around the door and said "I've never thought about things in that way before.")
And certainly, in any place I have worked, everyone on the "shop floor" has known who really pulled their weight in administration (that's making the whole show work) and who didn't. And it's that "on the ground" knowledge that we have to find a way of tapping. The truth is that, in my time (and I'm talking 35 years not only in Cambridge), I've seen quite a lot of attempts to "pull the wool" in this area on cvs. It's easy to get a great administrative record on paper if you choose your committees carefully. Some people have a great knack of chairing working parties that never meet, of acquiring impressive looking administrative sinecures, etc -- while others are slaving away, unsung, and often fixing the damage wreaked by the lazy.
But lets hope that getting these issues into the open will make an impact; because there is no doubt that in some parts of academe the ladies are still, promotionally, lagging behind.