5 Ways Female Academics Lose Out

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— And How You Can Fight Back 

Chances are that where you work, the gender balance at the top is significantly different from the lower ranks. Men still rise faster and higher in academia, despite a trend towards more women earning advanced degrees and pursuing an academic career.

Studies reveal a complicated pattern of personal choices and potential discrimination. How can greater fairness be achieved? Here are five research-based tips for women who want to move up, and for anyone interested in setting workplace policies that support all equally.

1.       Break down the “old boys network”

In some FE/HE workplaces, key contacts and discussions aren’t happening in staff meetings or in the corridor. They’re taking place at the pub, sports events, or off-campus dinners. There are two ways female academics can counter this kind of sidelining: ferret out information about these unofficial networking opportunities and show up, or talk to colleagues and HR about creating inclusive alternatives.

2.      Make women’s voices heard

All too often, staff meetings can seem like an unequal contest. From an early age men are socialised to state their views with confidence. Women who do speak up tend to marginalise themselves by qualifying what they have to say: for example, starting out with phrases like “I think that maybe we should…” instead of simply “We should…” It’s possible to attack this barrier on two fronts: assertiveness training can help individual women gain a voice, and so can meeting procedures that explicitly ask for comment from multiple perspectives (and limit those who always speak loudest and longest, regardless of gender.)

3.      Acknowledge and support the importance of caring—for women and men

It’s strange but true: having children is a career barrier for academic women, but not for men. Female postgraduates aiming for a PhD and an academic career still report that pregnancy or being a parent attract negative expectations from supervisors and potential bosses, while male postgraduates who become parents receive congratulations. Successful female academics are actually less likely to have children than high-level male academics. This disparity is based on the enduring idea that only women provide care, and so only women’s time for work will be affected by family responsibilities. Acknowledging and providing resources to support caring and working (for example, job-sharing, flexi-time, and on-site day care facilities with hours that match academic working hours and incomes) is crucial. Options should be discussed with all postgrad students, job candidates and employees.

4.      Proactively address job issues that can block promotion

One problem with academic jobs is that roles may be loosely defined. This can lead to women finding themselves in eternal support roles rather than taking the lead on projects, to the detriment of career progression. We should value the crucial importance of support and teamwork, but we also need to encourage and back women to take leadership roles and apply for higher positions.

 5.      Establish and nurture mentoring schemes for female academics

Some women who make it to the top do so by being just as competitive and dismissive of other women as some men. Strong mentors are those who understand the pressures, and who both point out the unwritten rules and work to change them. 

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