It's not work-life fears that hold back women

Gender gap at top is not due to reluctance to make sacrifices, study finds. Melanie Newman writes

July 30, 2009

It is sometimes suggested that female academics do not go for the top jobs in higher education because of the price they would have to pay in terms of their work-life balance.

However, research from Glasgow Caledonian University suggests that this theory is wide of the mark, and that women in academia are just as willing as their male counterparts to sacrifice more of their time to further their careers.

Duncan McTavish and Karen Miller, readers in Caledonian Business School's division of public policy, surveyed almost 3,500 higher education staff for the study.

They found that "contrary to conventional wisdom, concern about work-life balance was not a factor inhibiting female academics from applying for promotion".

According to the survey, male academics are not significantly more likely to apply for promotion than females, and both sexes cited the same reasons for applying: higher salaries, personal development and encouragement from line managers.

However, the researchers also discovered that women were more concerned than men about their work-life balance in non-academic posts and in further education.

About 30 per cent of higher education's senior managers, from vice-chancellors to deans, are women, says the paper, Management, Leadership and Gender Representation in UK Higher and Further Education.

Research published in 2007 by the same authors showed that about 70 per cent of university court members in Scotland were male.

"There is overwhelming evidence of failure in terms of gender representation, whether defined in terms of representing the wider community (from which non-executives are drawn) or a representation of the college or university staff for which boards and courts and college corporations have responsibility," the paper says.

Dr McTavish and Dr Miller suggest that the reasons given by academics for not seeking promotion may partly explain the dearth of women in management posts.

More than half of female academics polled said they did not apply for more senior jobs because they were not informed about the promotional opportunities available, compared with 35 per cent of males.

Male academics were almost twice as likely as females to say they did not apply because they were happy with their current position.

The researchers also uncovered a gender divide in perceptions of university promotion practices.

Men had a more positive view of leadership, culture, equality policies and opportunities for female advancement than women, and viewed promotional practices as fair and transparent. The women questioned tended to have less favourable perceptions and did "not necessarily believe that there is an appropriate gender balance at management level".

The paper says: "In particular, women believe there is a relationship between culture and the difficulties of female career advancement."

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