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Opening doors

Simone Buitendijk argues that female progression in academia must start from the top

On International Women’s Day, as on all other 364 days of the year, gender inequality in academia should be high on the agenda. Women at all stages of their academic careers still too frequently find doors closed to them that they cannot unlock without support. Leadership from the top and an institutional approach are pivotal for change.

The research evidence for bias against women in academia is overwhelming. Decades of studies around the world show that building university careers is more difficult for women. The more competitive the academic field and the more prestigious the position, the less likely you are to find a woman in the role.

We have made some progress. It is uncommon nowadays for people to think that women are less capable than men of succeeding or leading. Most countries also have anti-discrimination laws. However, bias against women in leadership is still pervasive, with women from a young age facing many hurdles that men don’t encounter. Even if every hurdle is small, stacked up they can become insurmountable.

Despite women graduating in numbers similar to men, or slightly higher, percentages in PhD, postdoc, assistant, associate and full professor roles diminish progressively. In most universities, the percentage of female professors in Stem fields is 20 per cent or less. I hope we can all agree that this is not a capability issue. So what is the problem? Evidence clearly shows it is a combination of bias in wider society and in academia. This bias is inherent both in individuals’ beliefs and in institutional structures, with the latter still primarily built to favour the careers of men.

Take Stem subjects. Research shows that female students are less likely than men to lead project groups, and as a result are less likely to be interested in a career in a relevant field. More broadly, women who make it into an academic career are less likely to be promoted, or to be paid at the same level as men, less likely than men to become a principal investigator, or to have their research papers quoted, or to reach positions of academic leadership, or to receive stellar reviews from students. Even when randomised trials examining bias have been carried out, supposed female applicants—with CVs identical to those of supposed males—are less likely to be chosen to lead a research group and more likely to receive a lower salary offer.

Layers of bias

An extra layer of bias is reserved for academic women who become mothers—the so-called “motherhood penalty”. They can unfairly be seen as less committed, less dependable and less hard-working than women without children. This could be viewed as an example of intersectionality: the phenomenon that people can suffer from disadvantage from more than one background characteristic. Just look at the example of Black female academics who suffer from more discrimination than their white female counterparts. According to the Women’s Higher Education Network, only 35 of the more than 22,000 professors in the UK are Black women.

Beyond this, sexual harassment and intimidation happen with shameful frequency in academia, and much more often to women than men. It is just a matter of time before the #MeToo movement takes full effect in academia, and when it does, the vast majority of those affected will be found to be women who were subjected to harassment relatively early on in their careers. Sexual harassment can do terrible things to self-confidence and mental health. If coupled with the threat of loss of career, it can put the victims in a position where their commitment to their work and their sense of job satisfaction is likely to plummet.

Dangers of denial

So what can be done? The most important step is that all of us, as individuals in academia and as institutions, stop denying that something is wrong.

The denial of rampant bias is the most significant impediment to change for two reasons. First, it stops institutions from looking at systemic, structural solutions; second it makes those affected by bias, discrimination and harassment feel ignored at best, or guilty at worst.

At an institutional level, the self-reinforcing rationale goes that if there is no bias, if we have a fair system, if academia is a meritocracy where the best make it to the top, there can only be one explanation if individuals fail to get there: they are not good enough. Academic women internalising that message collectively lose self-confidence, which, together with institutional biases and a system that favours men, creates a perfect storm of female academic disadvantage.

This issue is so deep-seated, it is unfair to leave it to individual female academics to fix it. Universities cannot be the best version of themselves if only certain groups make it to the top and get to make the big decisions.

What to do

There are some urgent actions we should all take: we need to devise comprehensive institutional statistics to locate and call out women’s disadvantage; we need safe spaces for women to speak up and share their stories; we need to routinely ask whether gender bias is at play across staff and student communities and processes; we need to change institutional processes and culture, such that we don’t always reward highly competitive, individualistic behaviours; we need to start thinking about encouraging different leadership styles in academia; and we need to value equally research group work, societal impact through research and teaching.

We also need to be clear about behaviours we won’t tolerate, and to give female students and academics confidence that we will take them seriously when they report that boundaries have been crossed. We need to counterbalance, wherever possible, the many hurdles and disadvantages that women face.

Even though gender inequality is a deeply engrained societal issue, there is a vast amount we can do in universities to enable women to reach the top in equal numbers to men. If we are to be the excellent institutions we need to be to change the world, we can truly create a fairer future for all of humanity.

Professor Simone Buitendijk is vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds