Mid-career female academics often feel “neglected” by their universities because they frequently receive little recognition, prestige or support for their work, a study suggests.
Based on interviews with 30 women who defined themselves as “mid-career” academics, a group of researchers at King’s College London say that worries over the “make-or-break” period cause considerable job insecurity, with many women questioning their future in academia.
The loss of early career mentors as they move into more senior roles and concerns that they are relatively “high cost” compared with junior staff also contribute to anxieties in the workplace, the report says.
The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education-funded study, Mid-career Academic Women: Strategies, Choices and Motivation, attempted to capture the concerns of a large proportion of the academic workforce whose voice was seldom heard, said Camille Kandiko Howson, senior lecturer in higher education at King’s Learning Institute, who led the project with Kelly Coate, the director of the institute.
“Studies often look at women at the top and how they got to that point, but do not address the vast majority of staff not at that level,” said Dr Kandiko Howson.
“They tend to focus on the exception, rather than the rule,” she added.
Many of the women interviewed complained that their work yielded little reward or recognition when it led to better results for a department, whereas personal honours achieved by men, such as publication of journal papers, were celebrated, said Dr Kandiko Howson.
“Teaching undergraduates, looking after PhD students and general management often went unrewarded within institutions and prestige is collected around a few individuals,” she said.
Universities should consider introducing rewards for collective success, rather than just relying on “easy metrics”, and introduce new job titles to better reflect the varied roles undertaken by mid-career women, the study says.
Necessary, but non-prestigious, tasks should be shared out within departments to ensure that women did not end up taking up the lion’s share of these duties, it adds.
Testimony quoted in the report also highlights how mid-career women find it difficult to juggle the demands of childcare with tasks that result in institutional prestige, such as writing academic papers.
“That particularly affects mothers with young children...because this is one area where you need to sit down and be able to think,” said one academic quoted in the report, who added “when you’re very exhausted, you do the easy tasks”.
In addition to these pressures more usually faced by women, interviewees also identified gender-specific traits that may make them less able to progress or enjoy greater job security.
Several women claimed that men are better at “playing the game” of self-promotion than women by drawing attention to their achievements.
For instance, cracking open a bottle of champagne to toast a colleague’s success in winning a grant or having a paper published in Nature was part of a “slightly false” game involved in the “culture of self-promotion”, one interviewee said.
“Women were often saying that men tended to communicate their success more loudly than women, who, when gaining grants, wouldn’t think to do that,” said Dr Kandiko Howson.
More efforts should also be made to help and support those who were not on course for high-level posts – which, statistically, is the majority of mid-career women, she added.
She said that for university departments to run well, “institutions need to recognise that they need people at all stages of their career”.