Leader: It is the mother of all choices

Do women miss out on promotion because of prejudice or because they are less committed?

March 27, 2008

Research presented to the Royal Economic Society last week outlined in bald statistics the steep gradient women must climb to advance their careers in universities. While the proportion of female academics has been increasing steadily for several years, to the extent that women are predicted to form an absolute majority in little over a decade, most are lower down the career ladder: they comprise 41 per cent of lecturers, 31 per cent of senior lecturers and only 16 per cent of professors.

Most of the gender promotional gap, the authors suggest, is down to age - the majority of women entering in large numbers are too young to benefit from the advantages conferred by seniority. But they reckon that between a quarter and a third of the difference is unexplained - which leads them to the conclusion that it must be attributable to discrimination. But to what extent are women choosing to discriminate in their career choices as well as being discriminated against? Some 42 per cent of women in the survey were childless, compared with 23 per cent of men.

Universities are tolerant places - outright bigotry of the kind visited on the generation of Rosalind Franklin is, one hopes, rare. More ingrained is the structural discrimination common to institutions that have their antecedents in the Church, courts and liberal clubs: the after-hours committees, the networking, the lack of flexible career paths that can be moulded around lives engaged off campus, the type of research that confers advantage, the assumptions made about people who aren't like you.

Institutions, prompted by principle, legislation and the frustrations of their own female staff, have gone to great lengths in recent years to address this inequality. For those not willing to wait for the remorseless logic of demography, mutual support systems, mentoring, creches and all manner of training and development initiatives have sprouted to crack the complacency of the men in charge. But women will still have to wait. At the current rate, women professors will achieve numerical parity with men only in 2070.

Which leads to a question: is this advance glacial because men are so entrenched or because women are less committed? Research conducted by Robert Drago and Carol L. Colbeck looking at 4,000 academics in American chemistry and English faculties found that full-time, tenured female academics were "significantly more likely than men to avoid marriage, limit the number of children they raise, delay a second child until after tenure, and, among parents, miss important events in their children's lives". Professional advancement requires familial sacrifices.

Only a minority of women feel that they can do both with equal intensity simultaneously. And generally they must make the decision to have a family at exactly the time that ambitious male colleagues devote serious attention to their academic futures.

That women are penalised in the promotion stakes because they choose family over career is hardly surprising, although the US study does put flesh on previous assumptions. Whether that choice is equitable or desirable is another matter. Why most women and very few men feel it is a sacrifice they have to make is probably beyond the remit of even the most proactive university HR department. Of course, in 20 years this debate may look rather quaint - as the consequences of boys dropping out of the educational system early on calcify into a permanent gender reversal that sees women dominating even at the highest academic echelons. Women making it to the top because of male stupidity. Who would have thought it?

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