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Dr Ileana Stigliani, Associate Professor of Design & Innovation, reveals her strategy for addressing the gender imbalance in academia – and why we should all be joining the fight

I grew up in Southern Italy and experienced sexism from an early age – but always rebelled against it. My brother was allowed to do many more things than I was, but only because he was a boy. I've always been the loud voice, the troublemaker. 

Maybe that's why I now have a passion for addressing the challenges that women face in academia, and I make no apology for exposing some harsh truths to male colleagues. 

There is no questioning the historical reality of gender inequality, but it is the overwhelming cultural and societal attitudes that are so hard to shift. 

Here is my strategy for making headway in the battle for gender equality in academia.

1. Don't wait for a magic bullet

We need a whole toolbox of strategies: from education – starting in primary school – to female role models. Proactive policies must address discrimination but also be actively policed.

Bring on the students, staff and faculty activists who can lead the charge and identify the emotionally intelligent men championing their female family members and colleagues. Make employers demand female candidates and then offer them equal opportunities.

2. Jump off the fence

Don't be a passive bystander. You too have a responsibility to call out discrimination, to support colleagues and lead by example, educating those who behave from a place of naivety or misinformation.

If you feel uncomfortable with a remark or behaviour, don't allow your discomfort to silence you. Discrimination can be low level and continuous; we must call it out wherever and whenever it happens. It cannot be allowed to grow and infect others.

3. Call out microaggressions

Daily microaggressions create a constant drip of injustice. These include interrupting (or, worse, talking over), mansplaining (women don’t need a translator), excusing inappropriate comments as humour ("It was just a joke, lighten up!"), snubbing someone nonverbally (easily denied) and invalidating legitimate grievances ("I’m sorry if you feel that way").

4. Fight unconscious bias

Unconscious bias immobilises equity. It affects male attitudes towards women and holds women back. The psychological constraints of unconscious bias create a dangerous barrier for women in a male-dominated sector like academia.

This is evident everywhere, and equity (as opposed to equality) means not just offering women the same opportunities as men, but countering the unconscious bias that permeates society. The same student evaluation questionnaire will elicit lower scores for female faculty; weighting these scores based on proven bias would go some way to redressing the balance. 

5. Champion, don't mentor

Mentoring policies are well meaning but often badly implemented. Male mentors are usually the "good apples" who think they get it, but sadly fail to see how their behaviours simply reinforce existing prejudice. Effective mentors must have walked in their mentee's shoes – nevertheless, everyone has agency to champion equity.

6. Policies that focus on child-rearing are discriminatory

Not all women are mothers. Yet most of the policies in place to protect women focus on helping them to have, and then look after, children. What about those who are childless by circumstance or by choice? We feel ignored when it comes to company policies and procedures that define family only as having kids. 

Of course, women should not be disadvantaged because of their biological makeup, but failing to recognise the diversity of female needs and circumstances creates another layer of discrimination.

7. Find your tribe

Finding a compassionate, like-minded community won't stop the discrimination, but a collective voice can make a difference. 

8. Walk the talk on EDI

It's easy for policies to create checkboxes, so that women (or other groups, such as people of colour, those who are neurodivergent or members of the LGBTQ+ community) in certain positions are seen to be there not for their talents or experience, but because they tick an EDI box.

Policy is only effective if it "walks the talk" and everyone buys into it. It must be understood, applauded, lived and breathed. Be aware of checkbox consequences: asking female members of faculty to take on additional roles (because they are female) impacts their availability to perform their core role, which in turn creates its own barrier to success.

9. Beware misogyny

Too many boys and young men are finding community through misogynistic influencers like Andrew Tate. As one 17 year old wrote to The Guardian: "Many boys see him as an icon. His ideas, while toxic, are seductive in their simplicity. He provides answers to insecure teenagers by telling his audience that if a man works hard and disregards the women in his life, he can become successful... many teachers who try to engage Tate supporters in conversation often make their students become more entrenched in their views".

There’s still a long way to go and I see it as my responsibility to push for action. Calling out discrimination is not enough any longer – we need to make change happen. 

This article draws on “Navigating an Academic Maze: Experiences of an International Female Scholar” and "Following up on 'A Letter to the Male Good Apples'" by Ileana Stigliani (Imperial College London)

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Main image: rudall30 / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images.

Ileana Stigliani

About Ileana Stigliani

Associate Professor of Design and Innovation
Dr Ileana Stigliani is Associate Professor of Design & Innovation and Academic Director of Imperial Business Design Studio. Her research focuses on the cognitive aspects of innovation. In particular, she studies how material artefacts and practices influence cognitive processes – such as sensemaking and sensegiving, categorisation, and perceptions of organisational and professional identities – within organisations.

In 2016, she received the Imperial College Business School Teaching Excellence Award for Innovation in teaching. She received her PhD in Management from Bocconi University, Milan.

You can find the author's full profile, including publications, at their Imperial Profile

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