Mid-career female researchers ‘need bespoke research grants’

UK professional bodies for mathematicians call for specialist funding to help female senior lecturers whose research careers are blown off course

May 6, 2022
Maths
Source: Alamy

Mid-career female academics whose research is disrupted by motherhood or other caring commitments should be eligible for a bespoke grant scheme to help revive their professorial aspirations, some of the UK’s top mathematical bodies have said.

In a joint letter to UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) which criticises its recent draft equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategy as “incomplete and lacking detail”, the Royal Statistical Society, the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, the Institute of Mathematics and the London Mathematical Society put forward 10 recommendations which, they say, will enable the funder to “support a more diverse community of mathematicians, statisticians and data scientists”.

Among its suggestions is the creation of “protected mid-career acceleration grants…for those who have already achieved mid-rank (senior lecturer/associate professor or analogous) but have not applied for funding for some years”.

The grants, which would be piloted and run across all funding councils, are required because “mid-career [has been] identified as a particular place that many women’s research careers stall”, explains the letter.

“Within mathematics there are two places in which we see a sharp fall-off in women’s career advancement – between PhD and postdoc, and then the point just below professorial level and full professorships,” Eugenie Hunsicker, senior lecturer in pure mathematics at Loughborough and honorary officer for EDI at the Royal Statistical Society, told Times Higher Education. She explained that more “re-entry” points were needed for academics whose research activities had been “sidetracked or derailed” by life events, such as having children or caring for elderly parents.

“Grant funding systems still, to some extent, envisage an ideal academic with a certain life trajectory starting with early career success, fellowships and New Investigator Awards which lead to various promotions,” said Dr Hunsicker. “This expectation that you will take off and enjoy a continuous track of success does not allow for the reality of what happens after the early career stage.”

Without more opportunities to re-engage researchers who achieved some seniority, UK research would “lose expertise” and “waste the considerable investment” made in these individuals over their careers, said Dr Hunsicker.

While she commended some parts of UKRI’s EDI strategy – which commits to “build and contribute to the evidence base” on diversity via evidence reviews and consultation before creating “evidence-led policies and interventions” – this plan reflected a “first level” approach to improving outcomes, Dr Hunsicker explained.

“It’s 30 years since we started thinking about these things and we’ve established beyond doubt that there are issues which mean not everyone can succeed in our sector – funding is a key part of that,” she said, noting that even in STEM disciplines dominated by women at undergraduate and doctoral level, such as veterinary science, the vast majority of professors are still men. “A large driver of this imbalance concerns research funding and why more grants don’t go to women,” she said.

Instead of asking women to apply for more grants or promote their work more vociferously – which Dr Hunsicker called a “deficit model in which we ask women to be more like men” – academia had to move towards a “diversity by design” system in which policies sought to intervene more directly, she said. “Even without explicit bias within the system, large disparities are still arising – we need a new approach,” she concluded.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

As a man whose career was derailed inter alia by a disabled child and assisting elderly parents, I feel that after a misleading headline quite a bit of the article is useful. I realise that most of those impacted will be women but it is not helpful to state that they need special grants. Most people's careers do not pan out as expected or we would all be professors by the age of 40. For both sexes, having any distraction or outside influence impacts your career - often it seems that the most successful fall into one of the following categories: (a) have no partner; (b) have no children but a relatively high-earning partner; (c) have children and a partner who picks up most of the caring duties; (d) some elements of (b) and (c). It is very difficult to have a balanced life and succeed as a modern academic. When I started, being a Senior Lecturer would have provided a decent standard of living and was the expectation for many. However, now this is not the case and my younger colleagues think about promotion on a timescale that often takes me by surprise. All of this places stress on academic staff members.
True, how very true.

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