Gender equality: universities are still all talk and too many trousers

Female academics’ feedback on issues such as ‘acceptable’ norms reveals a sector far from its ideals, say Laurie Cohen and Jo Duberley

February 2, 2017
Eleanor Shakespeare illustration (2 February 2017)
Source: Eleanor Shakespeare

Anyone who sincerely believes that academia is a meritocracy must be either deluded or in denial.

This is the blunt conclusion of our recent research into how female academics feel about the system. Even now, in the age of high-profile equality initiatives such as the UK’s Athena SWAN programme, unconscious bias remains rife and destructive patterns of thinking and behaviour are reproduced over and over again.

Last month’s release of figures on UK university staff in 2015-16 by the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveals that just 24 per cent of UK professors are women. That is a deplorable statistic for a sector that purports to champion diversity and inclusion. And just last week, a study in Nature revealed evidence of gender bias in peer review.

Last year, pressure group WomenCount published a report on the problem. One of the headline quotes came from Sir Nicholas Montagu, chair of council at Queen Mary University of London. He said that there is “no magic” about achieving a good gender balance, “just dogged repetition of what a high priority it is and a determination to seek out strong women candidates”. He is right. Yet sometimes it feels as though we really do expect the problem to disappear in a puff of smoke – or at least to fade inevitably away, so that we don’t have to pay much attention to it.

We recently conducted interviews and focus groups with junior staff, senior researchers and key stakeholders at research-intensive universities in the UK and in Europe to examine what hampers women’s career advancement. The same issues kept emerging. These include a lack of respect for women’s expertise; the tendency to allocate the important strategic roles to men and the less valued, operational ones to women; the idea that women are well suited to “caring” and pastoral responsibilities, particularly those liable to involve mollifying upset students; and the conceit that family should be a top priority for women and that motherhood must – or even should – end any interest in career progression.

Perhaps the most consistent theme to emerge, though, revolves around “acceptable” norms, and the fact that women are viewed differently in situations where the behaviour of men is taken for granted. Self-aggrandisement, conversation, banter, dress, even drinking: these are areas where women frequently have to conform to a set of unwritten rules, and many struggle to find the sweet spot between breaking the glass ceiling and sending their reputations through the floor.

Consider the following attributes: networker; self-promoter; ruthless; strategic; stubborn; tenacious; political. Which of these would you associate with a successful academic? And which would you associate with a female academic?

According to our respondents, although essential to career progression, none of these characteristics is seen as desirable in women.

Take networking. We all know that many of the most useful connections made at conferences are forged informally. Here, as many of our respondents stressed, women are at a major disadvantage. One interviewee highlighted the preponderance of “cliques and everyday sexism”, adding that “unless they’re prepared to indulge in consuming large amounts of alcohol and ignore the odd sexist comment, women can feel excluded”. One respondent even recalled a conference delegate admitting that he couldn’t absorb her research because he was too busy concentrating on her cleavage.

Self-promotion is another case in point. While male academics who proclaim their own abilities might be seen as confident and impressive, women risk inviting anything from selective obliviousness to outright resentment. The mildest reactions echo that old cartoon depicting a boardroom meeting at which only one woman is present. “That’s an excellent suggestion, Mrs Triggs,” says the chairman. “Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.” At the other end of the scale is the brand of hostility recalled by one of our interviewees: “I get accused of being ‘pushy’ and ‘bossy’ – and even a ‘bitch’ when they think I can’t hear.”

Such stories might sound trivial, overblown or even paranoid in isolation, but, taken together, they constitute a disturbing snapshot of a sector still far removed from its much-trumpeted ideals. The bottom line is that female academics are required to demonstrate their competence again and again – and, even then, their worth is less likely to be recognised.

Are targets or even quotas the answer? Possibly. We would be foolish to ignore their record of helping to transform myriad modern workplaces. More training and development programmes could also assist, as would an upfront acknowledgement that meritocracy is a hugely complicated construct. But whatever initiatives are adopted, it is vital that they be led from the top and involve senior men.

Of course, it is right to say that we’ve come a long way, and that men aren’t “the enemy”. Yet the harsh truth is that we’re still too inclined to reward people who fit traditional academic stereotypes and who are hopelessly conditioned to persist with the same old ways.

Magic might not be necessary, but there clearly remains a powerful spell to be broken.

Laurie Cohen is professor of work and organisation at the University of Nottingham and the author of Imagining Women’s Careers. Jo Duberley is professor of organisation studies at the University of Birmingham.

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