Category Archives: academia

Helping women to break the glass ceiling in academia

Gardiner, Maria; Tiggermann, Marika; Kearns, Hugh and Marshall, Kelly, 2007: ‘Show me the money! An empirical analysis of mentoring outcomes for women in academia’, Higher Education Research & Development, Vol. 26, No 4, pp. 425-442

In the last past months I’ve written a great deal on women in academia and the disadvantages that they suffer in terms of promotion, access to grants and interesting career prospects. This article addresses the same topic from a different perspective: it addresses what can be done to spawn a change in academia, and the answer that the authors give is mentoring.  

The data analysed in this article are related to a mentoring programme conducted at Flinders University in Australia. The project involved 22 female academics, mostly at Level B (lecturer), who had been employed by the university for around 5 years and were offered the possibility of joining a mentoring scheme. In order to assess the progress of this group another control group of 46 women with similar characteristics but not involved in mentoring was chosen. 

The article starts by presenting some well-known statistics and reasons for women’s lack advancement of in academia. The authors focus on the following reasons:

  • Lack of networking opportunities
  • Lower level of advancement in women’s research careers compared to their male colleagues

Some of these elements work in a vicious circle:

Women are unable to successfully apply for research grants because they do not have enough publications, but are unable to publish because they do not have adequate funding to conduct research. This would lead to poorer research ‘track records’ for women than for men, contributing to slower rates of career advancement.” (p. 427)

Mentoring is identified by the authors as an initiative that can increase the proportion of women in senior positions. Mentoring can be defined as “an informal process, in which the mentor and the mentee spontaneously form a relationship with the purpose of assisting the mentee in developing career-relevant skills” (p. 427). As the authors explain, several universities in Australia have launched mentoring programmes to assistin the learning and developing of their staff

According to the authors, many studies have shown the benefits of mentoring, including improved career outcomes and increased career satisfaction.

So, what was the outcome of their research?

  • Women that received mentoring were more likely to stay at the university, improving   female staff retention figures.
  • Those participating in the mentoring programme were more successful at securing external research grants than those in the group not benefiting from mentoring.
  • Mentees were promoted faster than those not participating in the mentoring scheme.
  • Mentees had a better publication record than those in the other group.

However, there were two areas in which both groups had almost similar results: career satisfaction and job satisfaction.  As the authors conclude:

Our findings indicate that, in the long term, mentoring seems mostly to affect mentees’ global sense of confidence as an academic, and in the short-term it reduces worries about research. However, our findings also indicate mentoring has minimal effect on career and job satisfaction” (p. 439).

I found this last conclusion very interesting, because it reveals how mentoring can help women to progress in academia, but does not necessarily make women at work happier.  This finding suggests that although mentoring or coaching can help women to progress in their careers, academia is, for a variety of reasons, an unfriendly place for women.

I would be interested to know why women progressing in their careers are still not happy. Is it that they need to work more than men for the same returns? Is it that women find it difficult to combine their careers as academics with their families?

I find mentoring and coaching in academia extremely interesting (I’m doing a PG in coaching). Somehow I think it’s not enough to leave all the responsibility for advancing her career to the individual. Mentoring and coaching in academia need to come with some sort of commitment from universities that they will make themselves more friendly to women and  minorities.



Women Law Professors: Negotiating and Transcending Gender Identities at Work

Wells, Celia: “Women Law Professors: Negotiating and Transcending Gender Identities at Work” Feminist Legal Studies, Vol. 10, 2002,
pp. 1-38

In this article Wells analyses and examines women law professors’ (WLP’s) complex feelings about gender in the workplace. Her hypothesis is that these experiences may change as they become senior members of a university. To conduct her research Wells relied on a self-reporting and interview methodology, analysing 37 cases via 29 questionnaires and 11 interviews.

It’s a fact that women are underrepresented in universities in the UK, especially at senior level. This is especially true in schools of law, where there are very few WLP and female heads of department. Wells concludes that while WLP in the UK are a diverse group, they are also quite homogenous in some aspects. For example, just two of the WLP come from a working class family, and up to two thirds went to private high schools. An overwhelming majority attended single-sex schools and a large proportion (13) attended what is called the “Golden Triangle”: that is to say Oxford, Cambridge or London University.

Three quarters of them are white. Most of these WLP work in areas identified as soft law (public international law or criminal law), whereas commercial law, property law, trust and equity or maritime law still remain boys’ clubs. The main reason for going into teaching law seem to be related to accessibility and flexibility in comparison to legal practice. Other reasons WLP mentioned were: “it was not for me” and “too stuffy”. It seems that for these women, academic life is more attractive than legal practice because of the possibility of a more harmonious intermarriage of their professional and personal life.

Wells reveals the following figures:

“While most have either one or two children, two of the women have five or more. In addition, a fifth of the women reported that they had responsibility for looking after parents or elderly relatives. A few of them referred to the fact that child care was shared equally with their partners but most of them took for granted (it seemed) that they would be the primary carers.” (p. 9)

Funnily enough, as Wells remarks, the elite universities that educated these women were reluctant to give them a job. Wells also mentions the number of years it took to be promoted to senior level. This varied from 3 to 20 years. Indeed, the average number of years spent as a lecturer was around 13 , and to rise from senior lecture to reader took between 1 and 14years. These data suggest that women spend most of their law career in junior positions.

Surprisingly, nearly a fifth of the sample did not think that gender played any role in their career. It is interesting that WLP saw gender as relevant but not necessarily a disadvantage:

“As far as my [undergraduate] experience is concerned I do not remember feeling or being treated any way but equal. I was President of my Hall of Residence (women only) and was a member of the Students’ Union and ran for President of the Union.” (17) “I cannot honestly say that my gender has caused many real difficulties in my work, though it has critically influenced my research field. I am about to become head of school and therefore do not know whether gender will prove relevant here. My suspicion is that I have been in my present surroundings so long that nobody really notices my gender any more!” (p. 11)

Other WLP commented that claiming gender bias at work might lead to victimization, which is not good for women at all:

“My philosophy . . . is the one I have consciously or subconsciously followed all my life, namely to behave as if equality between the sexes prevailed, to ignore barriers that may or may not exist, to forge ahead regardless, never to espouse the ‘victim mentality’, to believe that anything is possible, and to be robust in the face of alleged sexual and religious harassment . . . Younger women seem to belong to a different species altogether, of a more sensitive and victimised nature; and as I get older, I find their attitude more and more inexplicable and self-defeating.” (p. 11)

In the same tone:

“I remain opposed to gender studies for reasons I find hard to articulate (marginalisation, softness?); and I also think that the sexual harassment movement has gone much too far . . . I am a follower of the small group of women who believe that sexual harassment codes do women no good, in that they represent them as sensitive, prudish, obsessed with protection, vengeful, humourless, and totally inept in dealing with men.” (p. 27)

Wells did a very interesting follow-up on some of those WLP who had explicitly mentioned that their gender had not affected their career. Some of these women revealed contradictions in their self-reports and further interviews. For example, one of them mentioned later that she had been the object of sexual harassment by a senior member of the staff when she was at junior level. When later Wells inquired about it, she stated:

“Yeah, that’s interesting, but it didn’t affect anything, it was just, I think, a case of an older male senior person who was, sort of, going around, he tended to, you know, be sort of affectionate, but he was trying to bring out things that you were upset about and then go “there, there” and I just quickly moved off and said that was the end of that but it was interesting later, several years later, that other young female colleagues had had the same kind of experience, but, we hadn’t talked to each other about it.” (p. 12)

Gender was also reflected in women’s appearance. Some WLP reported that in schools of law women seem to be judged by their appearance far more than men:

“If a woman looks too attractive, she is not taken seriously; if, on the other hand, she is not stylish at all, she will not be popular. The trick is to strike a happy medium between the two extremes.” (p. 13)

For many of these women, having a female mentor or more women supporting them would have made a difference. In some cases, that lack of mentoring has been translated into a sort of denial, something like “If I know I can’t get it, better if I don’t need it”. As one of the WLP said:

“I have always been a very hard-working, over-achiever so didn’t need much from others – which is good because if I had needed it I might have been in trouble!” (p. 14)

This tough attitude is very characteristic of male-dominated environments in which women need to show that they are not too soft or needy. This is especially relevant in the field of law because our profession is very confrontational; it’s often about producing the best and most convincing arguments, those that make you feel powerful but which do not necessarily reflect the real situation or the whole of people’s point of view or emotions. Our profession is one of economising on affection and truth (– or perhaps masking affections and truth?) for the sake of good arguments and power.

In this sort of environment that women need to fit into there are various possibilities, according to Wells. Drawing on Margaret Thorton’s research on women lawyers in Australia, Wells portrays four different attitudes toward women: “the adoring acolyte, the body beautiful, the dutiful daughter, and the Queen Bee” (p. 15).

As in another review that I have posted here , Wells refers to “divided loyalties” and the feeling that once women have children they are perceived as less committed to their work. Another aspect repeatedly mentioned in the self-reports and interviews is that women do more pastoral work than their male colleagues. I found it interesting (maybe because I haven’t seen this so far) to read how teaching allocation in law schools can be driven by gender. For example:

“I wanted to teach conveyancing but was told I couldn’t because I did not have a practising certificate. I was then asked to teach family law ). Once I was instructed to teach family law (which I had never studied) ‘because I had a family’” (p. 15)

Most of the WLP expressed discomfort and stress about having to juggle their jobs and their roles as carers for children or older people. They also raised further gender issues when the topic of promotion was brought up. Promotion blockage was mentioned by many of the women, as also the subtle discrimination that women lawyers face.

“I am increasingly concerned how far attitudes among some colleagues, in law and the wider university, really have changed. Overt discrimination has largely disappeared. No-one would say, as was said to me, “you’re no competition, you’ll get married and go parttime” or “you ought to stay at home with that baby – children who are deprived of their mothers fail to thrive”. Yet such overt attitudes have their benefits. You can hit back. Other colleagues hear what is said and rally round. Today expression of such attitudes is more insidious. Colleagues wonder if “X is pulling her weight”. Requests to adjust teaching hours to meet childcare commitments are not met sympathetically. Yet requests to fit in with other external commitments are.” (p. 22)

Wells believes that women success does not change the organisation and once the agreements are made endure for a long time. In this regard, she quotes this hilarious statement from one of the WLP:

“A topic for discussion at the senior awayday was the reform of the University’s mission statement to remove the concept of working towards equal opportunities because the University has got there! And they really believe it.” (p. 24)

However, Wells point out that what seems to make a difference is having more women at the managerial level, something that I’m not fully convinced of. I think that it’s very important, but it doesn’t mean that women at managerial level are not going to end up doing the same thing. Wells make this interesting remark:

“Flattering successful women into believing they are exceptional justifies their being kept as a minority. They are recruited as ‘honorary males’ and by invitation join the dominant group of king bees. At the same time they may carry the dutiful (and therefore not exactly brilliant) image to prevent full admission or further progress. Only limited paths are available for women at this stage. Ascending the hierarchy will often mean for women an inevitable, tacit acceptance of the organisational culture. Gaining access to power for women may often be at the cost of their sense of identity as women, or their solidarity with others.” (p. 28)

The whole point, to me, comes down to what sort of change WLP can bring to the teaching and researching of law, and whether this change can be made only from a managerial position or also from other angles. Maybe we need to see more women in managerial positions to appreciate the change, but perhaps there are other alternatives.


Critical thinking

Natalia’s recent post, as usual, made me think, in this case, about what are we doing when we are blogging. Thinking about my experience of these  first months at it,  I found that a very important, un-planned and unforeseen aspect of writing this blog was to discover another way of doing academic thinking and writing.

Academia’s main tool is critical thinking. For years I would pride myself in finding fault with different ways of thinking, with academic papers, or talks. I am not sure when this happened, but I reached a point, where I found this exercise dry and unhelpful. I then went the other way and had trouble criticising. Or even worse in academic terms – though I suspect this is what many academics do in their practice- I realised I did not like stuff, just because it did not feel right. Then of course I found many rational explanations…but basically this is how it went:

– do I want to throw the book out of the window? Is this because it forces me to think something new, uncomfortable, or because it is bollocks? – this can be a tricky one, though…think Derrida…

However, this is what much of academic work is about: pointing out flaws in others people work. However, in this blog, in our reviews, I concentrate in what I like, what I find useful. Which is obviously part of academic work, as you need to work with something, but not one that is enhanced. It does not mean I do not find things to criticise, but I brush those aside, unless they itch me in a productive way. I have started to accept my body’s reactions to ideas and readings too, as you can see from the language I use. It does not mean either that I get married to these ideas. I use them if they are helpful for what I am trying to do, think and/or write. A more pragmatic way of looking at academic work.

I know there is a host of feminist thinking on what is valuable, rational, important in terms of academic work, and it also links to what Natalia analysed about her experience of academia. But I come to realise- with the help of good talks with friends, counselling, reading – that this is the only way of thinking something original for me. This is the way I work. And this means, I have to work on being afraid of making mistakes, of being vulnerable, of feeling exposed. During my PhD, this was a constant struggle. I had to work at having my own voice, and not being drowned in other people’s theories or ways of writing. My supervisors were especially good in this sense (if you ever read this, thanks!). And during my viva, my examiners commented on how refreshing it was to read some very honest reflections on how methods and how theories worked or not for me (self-inflicted blushing here), which was really nice, and uff, people, what a relief. So it is not that this way of doing this is not appreciated, it is, but it is hard work, and quite scary frankly and tortuous (for me at least!),  and you have, as usual, to find the spaces where this is appreciated. I do not need to tear people up to make myself bigger as others do.

I think that finishing my PhD, and the viva, gave me more confidence. The feeling of thinking it is OK to say what I think and use theory and academic work in particular ways; a feeling I used to have but lost along the way. I hope others don’t need to go through this process to find their voice, and be more confident. In this sense, academic work is like other creative work, I think, in terms of, as a dancer friend said, unless you say/do what’s true for you, it won’t work well, it won’t shine. And this blog hopefully will help do just that. So thanks for listening and leaving your comments, it makes all the difference.

Have you had these struggles too? Have you found your voice?


Does gender matters? Women in science

Barres, Ben A. “Does gender matters?” Nature, Vol. 442, 13 July 2002, pp. 133-136 

I’m half way through Cordelia Fine’s most recent book, Delusions of Gender, and I’m really enjoying it. The book explains in a clear and straightforward manner some of the prejudices behind many of the currently fashionable theories about the cognitive differences between the male and the female brain. In showing the inconsistencies of all these theories, she refers to Barres’ article.

Barres writes from the unusual point of view of a transgendered person (from female to male) and so he is in an excellent position to capture some of the invisible elements that drive gender discrimination in academia. Barres engages in the topic from both a personal and a political perspective, which I really appreciate. For example, he mentions that he soon realised that as a male academic he was in a more powerful position than when he was a female academic. As he states with irony, “I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man” (p. 135).

The trigger for Barre’s article was a statement by Harvard Professor Larry Summer , President of Harvard University from 2001-2006, Director of the White House National Economic Council and parenting expert in his spare time . Summer suggested that women are not advancing in science because they are innately not as well-equipped as men with the sorts of abilities required in science. His statement caused commotion and great opposition, and finally cost him his post as President of Harvard University and as Obama’s advisor. 

Summer’s approach was in part based on the polemic research conducted by Simon Baron-Cohen, who concludes that women are more inclined to empathize, communicate and care for others, whereas men are better at systematizing. Consequently, he says, the reasons behind women not advancing in science (or in any other field that requires systematizing skills) is purely related to biology or genetics. Up to this point there is no need for a great imagination to see some of the consequences of this assumption: if women are not as good as men in certain areas, let’s pay them less, put them into less favourable contracts, or simply not encourage them into research at all as it’s a waste of time and money.

 I must admit that when I read this pseudo-scientific rambling about female-male brain differences I get really mad. It’s not the fact that there are differences between the male and female brain, as seems to be the case, but rather that these differences are interpreted and constructed to justify women’s disadvantaged position in science and academia. Historically speaking we have been here before, so arguments about lack of women’s soul or intelligence are not new. This is just a sophisticated version. More than ever, we need to remember that the personal is political: that is, I’m not getting a Chair in Physics not because I’m not smart enough or lacking systematizing skills (sic) but because the institution discriminates against me on the basis of my gender.

I know that Summer’s statement happened in 2005, but still. How on earth does an intelligent and accomplished person who is supposed to be leading one of the best universities in the world have the guts to stand up in front of the academic community and say this? I guess because a) this is what Summer really thinks and b) because the institution has been implementing this policy for such a long time that mentioning it in public is nothing more than revealing a common and accepted practice . Not surprisingly, Professor Nancy Hopkins and others protested vividly.

 What really make me angry is the fact that we’re supposed to stay cool and quiet and accept Summer’s apology  without suggesting that his speech reveals something more than the personal opinion of someone with a big mouth. In the end, the apology was just about Professor Summers’ lack of tact, but nothing is said about the discriminatory practices endemic in academia.

Barres mentions in his article that although using words to combat words might be an appropriate strategy, something more needs to be done. Larry Summer’s comments on women’s innate inferiority is not an exercise in freedom of speech: as Barres says, it is “verbal violence”. Barres suggests not only standing up to openly denounce this sort of statement and the junk science they are based on but also doing something about it. These are some of the points he highlights in his article:

• First, let’s be clear; there is no evidence of different abilities in maths or science based on gender.

• Second, it’s common in academia to raise the bar for women: “One study found that women applying for a research grant needed to be 2.5 times more productive than men in order to be considered equally competent” ( p. 134).

• Third, we should be aware of the phenomenon of pulling up the ladder behind us. Unfortunately some women are not helping when they get to the top and often try to stop other women arriving in similar positions. But also some women fall into what is called “denial of personal disadvantage”, which implies comparing their achievements with those of other women rather than with men to conclude that there is no such a thing as gender discrimination in academia.

• Fourth, women are not more emotional than men, and for that reason they are well-equipped to look after other people.

• Fifth, there is a need to boost girls’ and women’s confidence that they can get what they want in terms of their studies and jobs. We need to encourage girls to study science if that’s what they want, and to avoid any sort of gender bias when advising them on their future professional careers. Most of all, as Barres puts it, it would be very useful to provide women with tools that teach them “how to survive in a prejudiced world”.

• And sixth, we should speak out and denounce discrimination in academia, no matter whether it is based on gender, religion, sex, nationality or race.


Girls, why are you writing in this blog?

 This is a very good question. We have been writing here for a month a half, and we’re both pretty happy with the project so far. Maybe Lucila will want to write about this at some point too, but for my part these are the things that I like about writing in this blog:

I write about things that preoccupy me that I can’t share with other people, except Lucila. My partner listens to me from time as we share similar views, but I don’t think he’s as worried about gender, mothering or feminism parenting as I am. Apart from Lucila my friends aren’t really concerned with feminism and they get very suspicious about my comments on parenting or gender. The other day a close friend asked me: “Was your mum a feminist?” As if this is the only explanation for my feminism. So it’s a relief to be able to express myself on all these matters.

Secondly, there are people outside – you guys – who are reading and commenting on this blog. This is even more amazing. We have readers in the UK, Australia, the United States and Germany, and through their comments I’m getting to know about other blogs on similar topics. Most of all, it’s a good feeling to see how people from all over the place share similar experiences of mothering. It’s also amazingly rewarding to read about the ways in which women reinvent their lives after having children.

Lucila and I are very industrious. Every week we try to write at least one academic review of an article or book on mothering and feminism. Sometimes it’s not easy ( ditto, this week), due to lack of time, sickness, childcare catastrophes and viruses attacking the whole family, but by doing this we’re building up our knowledge and resources for future projects in the field. At the same time we also get the benefit of other people’s comments, and ideas about similar topics. It’s really enriching.

However, after this month and I half I’ve realised that I don’t have clear ideas about my mothering and my feminism . Sometimes I feel that I don’t know how to frame them in a way that doesn’t look “politically incorrect”. For example, my being able to spend the first years with E. is very important, and although I want to share that time and the responsibilities that go with it with my partner, I still want to be the one who’s spending the most time with E. It might be because I’m still breastfeeding, because my mum worked crazy hours when I was little or because it’s difficult to change the social and cultural constructions that are ingrained in my mind.

Having said this, I still want to keep on working, to be in the world, to renegotiate the housework with my partner and to find other ways of parenting that challenge current gender constructions. But the whole question of gender equality puzzles me. Different feminist writers point out that unless we reach equality in the household, women will never be free from discrimination in the workplace. I do understand this position from a logical, rational, and purely feminist analysis of how to reach equality, but the problem is, I don’t want that model in my life. At this point in my life (and maybe this will change later) I want to be the person spending most time at home with E. and making most of the decisions concerning his schooling, parenting and feeding. On top of that I still want to work (I love my tiny part-time job) but I know I need to slow down if I want to be with E. and keep on publishing and teaching.

What I find awful is that there is no avenue for those in the slow track. I have the feeling that in our society the message is that either you’re fully productive or you stay at home, because people half here and half there are not wanted. This doesn’t mean that I don’t support women who want to work full time and have their children. I don’t want to sound like a fundamentalist stay-at-home mum who thinks that the best thing is to stay with your children and give up your job. I would go nuts if I stayed with E. 24 hours a day. The problem for me is the difficulty of capturing women’s’ expectations when these expectations are so changeable.

For example, a woman in her twenties might want to study maths, get a PhD and work at a university, but after having children she might want to stop working for three years and return to her full-time career five years later; whereas another woman in the same position might want to keep on with her career despite having children. So, how can all these expectations can be recognised and respected?

I‘m also aware that this is very much the speech of a white, heterosexual middle-class woman whose partner earns enough to for her to maintain her sugar-coated feminist mothering fantasies. I’m just writing from my own experience, and I don’t intend to argue that this experience is universal to all women. So please take this as a disclaimer.

Knowing all these facts, how can all these diverse situations and preferences be accommodated in our society? This is what I want to investigate. It’s why writing here is a joy: this blog, for me, is about experimenting with all these questions.


A very personal view of women and academia

I had a terrible pregnancy with E., starting with five months of morning sickness. During these months my research plans came to a halt while I grappled with my second-semester teaching. After having E. it took me a while to recover from the difficult delivery. Besides this, he got two infections in the first three months of his life and we ended up in hospital twice. I was tired and constantly thinking how I would be able to catch up with my research, which I had abandoned for months.

When E. was four months old I hired a nanny for two mornings a week in order to try to rework an article I had submitted two months before giving birth and that had been rejected. I must confess I almost went nuts. E. was sleeping very badly (I’m not kidding: for the first eight months I barely managed five hours sleep a night) and on the top of that I was putting myself under a lot of pressure to rewrite the article in record time. So the inevitable happened: one day I ended up crying inconsolably, feeling like a failure both as a mother and as an academic. It didn’t take me long to decide that I would rather be a mediocre academic than a mother abandoning her child to write an article that very few people would care about (I know that working two mornings doesn’t mean you abandon your child, but the whole situation made me moody, grumpy and not available for E. at all). So I decided to give up for the rest of my maternity leave.

On this, it has always intrigued me to read those footnotes at the beginning of academic articles telling the reader that Professor X. died after a long illness in the course of finishing his/her article. Sometimes I wonder why on earth, when you’re dying, you would absolutely want to devote your remaining energy to finishing an article or a book . But that day in my kitchen I understood why. Because you are so used to giving up so many important things in your life in order to write and publish, than one more doesn’t make any difference at all. It was clear to me that I was not prepared to sacrifice that much.

My maternity leave ended, and when I returned as a part-time lecturer I had a lot of things to catch up on, most of all my research. The research project that I’d planned before I got pregnant was not feasible any more, as it involved a lot of travelling, so I ended up trying to design a new one that would allow me to be with E. and my partner (a little bit of family life and balance for a change). At the end of the semester, after teaching, reading and thinking about the new research proposal, I was exhausted. I had the feeling I was losing the sense of joy and freedom that I had always loved about my academic work. I felt like a machine that needed to produce research no matter what my circumstances, my mood, or – let’s face it – my lack of ideas. I felt under so much pressure that I didn’t know what to write or research any more. I was blocked.

My personal circumstances were not helping. My partner was still in  Scotland, as he hadn’t found a job in London, and I was working in England on my own with a 14-month-old toddler. So I decided to resign. The morning I sent the letter I cried for half an hour. I felt as if I was throwing my whole career into the garbage, and realised that my self-esteem was very much based on me belonging to the “academic tribe”. I felt that I was in a vacuum. It was a real crisis in my life, but surprisingly it opened new doors in other areas.

I was offered a part-time job at the University  in Scotland, and I decided, along with Lucila, to start this blog. My research took off with new ideas and I’m also about to start a postgraduate course in coaching. However, I must admit that the trigger that allowed this transition was abandoning the idea of being a successful academic as it is normally perceived. I was not going to be the sort of academic invited to the main conferences in the field, nor the one writing fundamental articles or books on my subject, but I still wanted to make a contribution. Maybe a tiny one: but most of all I wanted to make a contribution that would not prevent me to from being a happy woman in my work and life rather than someone permanently emotionally crippled.

That was the option I chose; other women may want different things in their lives (or they may have no other option than to continue working as full time lecturers). Women in academia should have the space and the options to choose the sort of career they want to follow. For me, it is not just a matter of eliminating the barriers that prevent women gaining more responsibility and power at their universities; it is also about re-evaluating parenting in academia and why motherhood affects women’s careers so negatively.


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…