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Worsening research culture has hit women hardest

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In some ways, female academics had it easier 30 years ago, says Catherine Mitchell

When I began my postdoctoral career in the early 1990s, I encountered a lot of blatant sexism. University management and senior academics did nothing, and men who were not sexist themselves tended to let bad behaviour go unchallenged.

The one time I complained, it made thing worse; I learned to ‘just get on with it’.

Despite this, in many ways it was an easier time to be an academic; to find one’s own niche, and to pursue one’s own agenda. Partly, this was because at the time renewable energy policy, the subject of my PhD, was seen as a fluffy irrelevance by the senior (read: male) academics working on applied energy policy. If I had wanted to study a more crowded and male-dominated subject, life would have been tougher.

More generally, though, there was far less micromanaging by universities. You could apply for money without having to go through internal peer review, or without worrying about your contractual status, age or seniority. National research evaluations—what has become the Research Excellence Framework—cast a much smaller shadow.

Even though there was an expectation, which persists in some places, that early-career researchers would work on senior colleagues’ contracts for no extra pay, and often no reward, it was reasonably easy to become independent.

I had my own projects within two years of finishing my PhD, and have remained independent ever since. For researchers on a treadmill of short-term grants, that must sound like another planet.

Two steps back

These days, as I near the end of my university career, there’s less overt sexism. But it pains me to say that, in the 30 years since I started working in universities, I am not sure they have become much more friendly places for women.

I’ve seen little progress on helping academics balance work with caring responsibilities, or on dealing with unconscious bias. In some areas, such as the influence of the REF and competition for jobs, conditions for female researchers have become harsher.

University life nowadays is dominated either by trying to get a job or, once in post, by the demands of the REF and the institution’s wider key performance indicators. Success depends on the amount of effort one is able to put in to producing papers, writing bid applications and creating impact.

We know that grant application and peer review processes are biased against women. Funders have moved towards fewer, bigger grants, which tend to go to the usual (read: male) suspects. This creates barriers to entry that are bad for innovation in research, and bad for diversity in all its forms.

Power shift

In this environment, part-time working and career breaks cause major difficulties in staying ‘competitive’ in university appointments. Caring responsibilities make it harder to shape one’s work to deliver whatever universities decide they want for the REF. Women who try to slough off these pressures and focus on their own agenda are more likely to be labelled as difficult than a man who does the same.

The gap between what counts as inherent and acceptable competition, both inside and between UK universities, and what crosses over into bullying is narrow. It is a distinction that universities are struggling to navigate.

What solutions might there be? In 2019, I contributed to a report, titled Power Shift, that explored gender balance in energy research. This concluded that creating gender balance and giving female academics an equal chance of progressing in their careers requires a sea-change in the culture values of universities and research.

A good first step would be to listen to women. We know little about how female academics have found academia over time, or what strategies they have used to navigate it. We need to understand their lived experience and their needs, and we need more quantitative data on their working lives.

This should lead to targets, including for improving the gender balance on peer review and application panels, and plans for monitoring progress. At the same time, research councils and universities should place less emphasis on standard measures of productivity and impact that are biased against some researchers.

And if we really want diversity in research, that needs to be reflected in funding decisions. The government’s stated goal of a diverse academic body needs to be backed up with money, along with changes to university regulation and incentives.

University cultures have built up over centuries around the male academics who created them. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised if rebuilding that culture takes longer than a single working lifetime but, unfortunately, I don’t think such a goal is being even widely discussed.

Catherine Mitchell is professor of energy policy at the University of Exeter

A version of this article also appeared in Research Fortnight