Cracking the glass ceiling: paper aims to guide women to the top

Progressing from junior faculty to tenured professor is extremely difficult, but following ‘action-oriented’ competencies can help, research suggests

June 23, 2016
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The difficulty faced by junior female academics in progressing to senior positions is well documented, but researchers at a US university have identified six “core career competencies” that they believe can “successfully advance the careers” of female associate professors.

Their paper – “Identifying core competencies to advance female professors’ careers: an exploratory study in United States academia”, published in the Journal of Further and Higher Education – concludes that the study’s results can be applied to help “female associate-level professors [progress] to the rank of full professors” and to “prepare female participants in academia for rewarding careers”.

Through interviewing six full professors at a US university, the researchers identified 112 career-related competencies, which could be grouped together into six “core categories” with numerous subcategories.

The core categories include making important connections – seeking and building meaningful relationships with other female faculty or peers within your institution – fulfilling the day-to-day tasks expected of you as faculty, and being “politically savvy”.

Other competencies are managing personal and professional obligations, developing a sense of self-agency for your career and believing in yourself within the work environment.

This last category highlights the importance of dealing with what the research calls the “crucial self-perception” that helps female academics deal successfully with “various obstacles and pressures” faced by women working in universities. The researchers stress the importance of building positive attitudes such as those related to self-esteem – “learn how to think of yourself as valuable” – and realistic self-evaluation – “do not think that you need to over-perform to get what the average gets”.

“Such statements take into consideration that female faculty are under constant pressure and subject to the judgement of colleagues, especially because of their gender and/or racial differences,” the paper states.

“Another mode of self-perception in this category derives from the culture of the organisation or workplace – coping with sexism culture – and the dual expectations of female and male instructors in class.”

The paper quoted one interviewee as saying: “females are treated differently…are judged by what they do with their hair…makeup…[and] how they dress. Females are judged when they talk…[and] when they don’t talk…if you ever cry, or act surprised or even excited, that is held against you.”

Gaeun Seo, a co-author of the paper and graduate research assistant and PhD student in human resource development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said that it saddened her that higher education still required peer-reviewed articles to help female academics along the career path. Nevertheless, she noted, the advice had been useful from a personal perspective.

“Everybody talked about issues such as how you look, how you dress, how you speak, will influence how people think of you professionally and how you will have to work harder than male colleagues,” she told Times Higher Education. “What I found was it was really helpful [for me] to think about what I need to focus on.”

She said that the research provided guidance that was “important” for women in an academic post but was also useful “even [for] me as a doctoral student, not faculty; it made me think about what I need to consider”.

Despite the paper’s US focus, Ms Seo said she believed that its insights could be adapted to other countries, with the paper noting that “the identified core competencies remain viable for junior female faculty members to advance their academic careers; therefore, such competencies could be considered as best practices or guiding references”.

She expressed hope that her paper would “stimulate different systems” to think about how their faculties dealt with these issues and said that she would like to see a similar study done in the UK sector so that “we can compare our results”.

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