Excuse me, is this only a boy’s club? Research and academia in UK

Fisher, Virginia: Women in research at the University of Wolverhampton: an institutional case study. Unpublished, March 2010,

Virginia Fisher was commissioned to write the above report in 2009/2010 by the University of Wolverhampton’s Graduate School and Diversity Unit. The study seeks to identify the reasons behind the under-representation of women academics in submissions to the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) which later was replaced by the Research Excellence Framework (REF),  and as professors in various departments and schools across the UK.

What I found interesting about this report is not only the analysis of specific circumstances at University of Wolverhampton but also how Fisher examines the gender dimension in research in the UK. 

Women are not reaching the higher positions in academia. We tend to populate the lowest ranks of the hierarchy and earn lower salaries than men in the same job. It seems that the gender pay gap and the underrepresentation of women in senior academic positions, especially in science, engineering and technology , are common, as recent cases have shown . Fisher, following Halvorsen, states that “it will be 68 years before half our professors are women” (p. 13).

There is also the question of what sort of research is validated and recognised. Some women find it difficult to build a career as a researcher due to their lack of identification with what is presented as “acceptable knowledge” (p. 15). In fact,

for women to succeed, they must produce ‘acceptable knowledge’, investigated in ‘acceptable ways’ and looking at ‘acceptable topics’”.  (p. 15)

Women tend to also perform activities such as pastoral care, advising and coaching students while many of their male colleagues do not , which dramatically affects the time available for research and is not helping women in their careers.

“After being a PL [principal lecturer] for several years and having four children I applied to be an associate dean. At the interview I was asked why I had no research. The answer was that I’d being doing all the admin and all the other stuff. I‘d been working silly hours; I was working until 10 or 11 at night even with a large family. When I said all this to the Dean, he said, ‘it’s because you’re not being efficient with your job’. I said, no, if I didn’t there’d be so many gaps in the system. No-one thanked me for not doing research. That was a real wakeup call. “ (p. 30)

Gender is also reflected in more subtle ways such as in the way male academics socialise, share their experiences and network among their colleagues. Men tend to feel more confident with other men, and based on this confidence they create networks and exchange information at levels that women feel unable to participate in. This has been coined “homosociability” by Morgan (p. 26) and often prevents women accessing contacts and informal information vital to their career progression.

Things don’t look any better in the field of research. As Fisher reminds us, there is “ a 15% pay gap between men and women, so that for every £1 earned by a man, a woman only earns 85 pence” ( p. 13)  Fisher affirms, following Rees, that research is deeply gendered,

both in the methods favoured by men and topics selected for research funding; men dominate research committee decisions, editorial boards and informal academic networks” (p. 14).

The RAE, now REF, is not helping either. Indeed, it has a gender bias. It supports the idea that a successful academic publishes in top-ranking journals, continuously applies for research grants in complex projects involving travelling and manages research groups with a high commitment to dissemination. However, as the Association for Women in Science and Engineering (AWISE)  explains, while women produce less paper but better quality, when it comes to obtaining research grants men are more likely to be successful.

This underrepresentation in terms of research is clearly reflected in the fact that in some universities male academics are up to five times more likely to submit their research to RAE than females. In the framework of RAE 2008 it was possible to challenge a decision not to include an academic with less than four papers on the basis of personal circumstances affecting his/her career, but of course many women ended up trying to hide their personal circumstances in order not to be labelled as weak or not good enough as academics. As one of the female academics at Wolverhampton puts it:

“I have pictures of my kids stuck to my wall but if a male colleague had picture of his kids he might think that wasn’t sending out any sort of message whatsoever, or maybe people might think ‘oh bless isn’t he caring’, bonus points definitely. However if a senior manager happened to walk into the office I would be worried that they might see this as someone who is not going to give 100% commitment to the organisation.” (p. 31)

Annette Williams, director of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, said about the gender gap in RAE submission that “Family responsibilities should not be seen as “mitigating circumstances”, but as part of life” ; but the fact is that family life is perceived just as part of women’s life.

One of the recommendations in Fisher’s report is that academic staff are recognized and rewarded for “emotional labour” (p. 40). She adds that it would also be important to

organise and run training where research active staff can be encouraged to minimise their emotional labour…and put their energy into establishing a research career” (p. 40).

I do think that on the top of the many things that can be done to advance women’s careers in academia there is still the whole question of defining what a good academic is. I presume there are many  views  on this topic.

While reading Fisher’s report different situations and experiences came into my mind, so I am planning to write a couple of pieces about how gender has played a role in my work as an academic. We would really like to hear from you on this. If you want to write something more substantial  than a comment on this blog, please contact us. We are thinking about creating a guest post (we’ve never done it before, but we’d like to open this blog to other peoples’ experiences and ideas). So we’d be really happy to hear from you…

6 responses to “Excuse me, is this only a boy’s club? Research and academia in UK

  1. “There is also the question of what sort of research is validated and recognised. Some women find it difficult to build a career as a researcher due to their lack of identification with what is presented as “acceptable knowledge” (p. 15). In fact,
    “for women to succeed, they must produce ‘acceptable knowledge’, investigated in ‘acceptable ways’ and looking at ‘acceptable topics’”. (p. 15)”

    This isn’t massively on topic, but this part of your post just really reminded me of the post I did (linked below) which links to an article by the wonderful Cordelia Fine about an ‘acceptable hypothesis’ for research! It’s really interesting and wonderfully written, so I thought I’d share in case you hadn’t seen it.


    • What a coincidence! I’m currently reading her last book. I didn’t know her, but I’m getting interested in the topic and after looking here and there I found her book. Thanks for sending the link, I will try to find some time during the weekend to read it. No childcare this week, so I’m struggling to do some writing.
      Another name I came acrross with is Londa Schiebinger, but I haven’ read anything from her yet. She has a book titled “Has feminism changed science?”.

  2. My experience as a woman in academia is complicated because
    a) I left with a master’s degree and did not pursue a doctorate as I had planned and
    b) as a working-class first generation white woman in academia I was constantly navigating both class and gender.
    My experience may speak to your above idea of what sort of research is validated and recognized.
    I was in both the Education department and Women’s Studies departments, teaching and writing in both. Both progressive and “down to earth” departments. What I found extremely difficult was researching and writing. My writing was always criticized as either too feminine (in the education department) and too reflexive (in the women’s studies department), which to me reads feminine. I despised writing my thesis and found that even in the down to earth departments they are not always excepting of creative methods of writing and research. I felt tied to the methodology and the proper research and analysis “etiquette”, all of which felt extremely un-feminist and completely out of character for me. My research didn’t sound like me at all, my topic was butchered in order to create the perfect question, and I ended up writing something that I did not fully believe in. This was all done in an effort to make my work more academic, less feminine, and completely void of reflexivity. My thesis sucked, I felt terrible about it and when I presented it, it was critiqued as being “simplistic” and lacking affect. I felt like I was being pulled in ten thousand different directions. This process left me feeling bewildered, angry and, frankly, stupid.
    Thanks for bringing up such an important topic. I would love to write more about working class voices in academia, we are often a silent minority who tend to blend in and pass as middle class folks.

    • Thanks for sharing your story with us. Would you like to write something more substantial than a comment ? I find extremealy interesting the fact that your research was labelled as feminine or too reflexive. What were the creative methods of writing and research that were not accepted? Sorry to ask so many question, but I find your story illustrates very well the point Fisher was trying to make in her report.

  3. I would love to write something more substantial about this as a guest post. You can contact me at montalino at gmail dot com.

  4. Pingback: Women Law Professors: Negotiating and Transcending Gender Identities at Work | maternalselves

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