Female academics ‘feel less prepared for professorships’

Study attributes women’s feelings of unpreparedness at time of appointment to lack of confidence

July 25, 2020
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Female academics in the UK feel less prepared to take on a professorship when they are appointed than do their male counterparts, a study suggests.

A survey of 1,282 professors at UK universities found that 71 per cent of male respondents felt prepared to at least some extent for the role on appointment, compared with 60 per cent of female respondents. Meanwhile, 26 per cent of men said they did not feel entirely or at all prepared, compared with 35 per cent of women.

The study, published in Higher Education Research & Development, said it was unlikely that male professors received more or better training or thought that preparation for the role was unnecessary. It attributed the discrepancy to female professors feeling less confident than their male peers.

Justine Mercer, an associate professor in the Centre for Education Studies at the University of Warwick, who conducted the research, said that comments gathered through the survey and from 42 interviews revealed that men and women were just as likely to say that they did not need preparation, that they learned on the job or that they wished they had received more preparation.

However, women would much more regularly comment on their own, or other women’s, lack of confidence, she said.

When asked how universities could help to address this gap, Dr Mercer said that Newcastle University’s “Unpacking Your Chair” programme for new professors, which was given a Times Higher Education Award for Outstanding Contribution to Leadership Development in 2012, was “universally praised” by respondents.

The programme “wasn’t a female-only space, but it was a space where people at the same level of professorship – i.e. newly appointed – were able to come together for a couple of days several times in the year”, she said.

“It didn’t have an explicit focus on confidence as such, but people had to discuss the problems they were facing and report back on advice the group had generated in terms of whether it had worked. There was a sense that it was a safe space in which to fail.”

Dr Mercer’s study, which was funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society, also includes a range of recommendations for universities to improve professional leadership development, including creating clearer and more realistic job descriptions and prioritising informal and personalised learning opportunities such as coaching and mentoring. But Dr Mercer said she had doubts that the former would be implemented.

“On the one hand, more realistic job descriptions would stop burnout; but I think universities benefit from having nebulous job descriptions because that encourages over-performers to never be satisfied and to feel that more could always be asked of them,” she said.


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