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Career Progression Remains Elusive for Female Academics

Despite all efforts, women remain underrepresented in academia, particularly in leadership positions.

We have come a long way with initiatives like Athena SWAN (a framework used across the globe to support and transform gender equality within higher education and research). Still, research shows that these tend to fail due to, quoting a recent paper: “resistance to or unwillingness to support equality initiatives involving quotas or affirmative action.”

I am a postdoctoral researcher who has worked in academia for 11 years; I currently work in a fantastic research group, but over the years, I have experienced some of the issues discussed below. Ultimately, I am using this opportunity to explore what research has highlighted, but also what I have experienced first-hand, and heard from colleagues over this decade of being part of the academic world.

So, what are the issues women face in academia that could get in the way of their progression to senior or leadership positions?

One major issue women face in academia is unconscious bias, which can be defined as attitudes or stereotypes that unconsciously influence subsequent actions and decisions. These biases are present in everyday interactions. For example, I am positively biased towards dogs and will greet them and expect them all to be friendly.

On a more serious note, biases that women in academia face can manifest in a variety of ways, including:

  • in hiring and promotion decisions: women are more likely to need career breaks due to childcare responsibilities, which can hinder securing funding and promotion.

  • in career progression: women are less likely to be appointed professors, at least in the US.

  • in the way that women’s research is received: papers with women as the first or last author are less likely to be cited; research has found, which can hinder securing funding and promotion

  • in the way women scientists are perceived by society: a good example is how Psychology is seen as a “soft” science (or not like science at all!) due to the high representation of women (at least in junior roles).

A lack of opportunities in sight can significantly impact women’s mental health and well-being in academia as they may feel undervalued or unsupported in their careers. One can be “stuck” in short-term contracts (postdocs will usually last for a maximum of three years), but unable to secure independent funding afterwards (in the form of a fellowship) or to be appointed Assistant Professor. It’s a highly competitive field; I have seen a fellowship application to request the candidate to list ten first-author publications, but the cut-off for applicants was a maximum of 3 years post PhD award, which is not an easy ask!

I want to highlight to you, my reader, that academics are traditionally people that have been praised for their academic achievements (“getting good grades” or “getting into good universities”), and that may have been, for years, putting undue value in their scholarly accomplishments. In fact, as an academic myself, I can recognise how much my identity has been tied to my career; I AM an academic, even outside of work.

In academia, particularly, the “Leaky Pipeline” concept has been gaining traction.

The “Leaky Pipeline” refers to the phenomenon of women leaving the academic track career, especially at the postdoctoral (after completing a PhD) stage. One crucial factor contributing to the “Leaky Pipeline” is the need for more flexible working arrangements for caregiving responsibilities, which often include small children at the postdoctoral stage. This is not the only contributing factor, but it is a highly prevalent one.

A recent report highlighted that women face more significant barriers than men in their academic career progression, citing “poorer employment conditions, a poorer working environment and greater difficulties concerning both funding and promotions”, all contributing to the “Leaky Pipeline”.

This need to “keep everything under control” or, like Amy Westervelt, in her book “Forget Having It All”, sums up: “We expect women to work like they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work”. This can lead to feelings of guilt, stress, and burnout, which can negatively impact mental health.

Another factor contributing to the leaking pipeline is the need for more mentorship and support for women in academia.

Where are the mentors if no women are in senior or leadership positions?

As women are often underrepresented in leadership positions, they may need more access to the same resources and opportunities as their male counterparts. Interestingly, a recent study found that women outperform their male counterparts when promoted to the Professor level. This can make it difficult for women to advance in their careers and lead to feelings of isolation and frustration.

The “Leaky Pipeline” can significantly impact women’s mental health and well-being in academia. However, by creating policies and programs that support flexible working arrangements, mentorship, and inclusivity, we can work to improve the representation of women in academia and create a more inclusive and equitable academic community. We can’t lose out on all the intelligent and driven women that don’t get a chance to leave their mark as senior academics. It’s important to acknowledge the mental health aspect of the “Leaky Pipeline” and work towards creating a more supportive work environment for all.

However, steps can be taken to address these issues and improve the representation of women in academia. Some of these steps include:

  • Increasing awareness of unconscious bias and working to reduce its impact : initiatives must be built with impact and longevity in mind, not just a “tickbox” exercise.

  • Providing training and resources to help women succeed in academia.

  • Creating policies that support working mothers.

  • Encouraging men to take on a larger role in caregiving so that women are not forced to choose between their careers and their families.

  • Creating a culture of respect and inclusivity in academia by educating all levels of seniority, starting with the leaders, so that the effects of new, inclusive policies trickle down.

Ultimately, it will take a collective effort from everyone involved in the academic community to make meaningful progress, not just women fighting for other women. This includes institutions, departments, mentors, colleagues, and individuals themselves.

It’s important to note that the underrepresentation of women in academia is not only a problem for women but also for the institutions and the field. When diversity is lacking, a significant portion of the population’s perspectives, ideas, and contributions should be showcased. They remain invisible.


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