Overseas research rite of passage ‘discriminates against women’

Trends in international mobility may explain why fewer women are reaching the top ranks of academia, a Spanish study suggests

August 22, 2016
A baby in a bag
Source: Getty
Close to home: researchers who wish to have a family might think, ‘let’s get the travelling over as soon as possible’, even if it’s a poor career choice

Female academics take shorter international research trips and stay closer to home than male scholars, suggests a study into the potential reasons for the “glass ceiling” effect faced by women in academia.

Examining the CVs of 10,349 Spanish doctoral holders in nine fields, researchers found that women were more likely to be internationally mobile than men, with 42.6 per cent having completed a research visit outside Spain compared with 37.6 per cent of men.

However, women undertook “significantly shorter” visits abroad (3.5 months on average versus 3.8 months for men) and took their first visit much earlier than men (an average 1.5 years before completing their PhDs compared with 0.7 years for men), according to the study, published in the journal Science and Public Policy last month.

They also tended to restrict their visits to Western Europe, while men were more likely to visit North America or Latin America, and women were significantly less likely to travel frequently, particularly after the age of 40.

The authors of the report are now analysing European Union-level data to see if similar trends exist across the Continent and whether they may contribute towards lower rates of promotion among female academics.

This may be evident in Spain, where some 47 per cent of PhD holders are women, as are 38 per cent of researchers, but where just 17 per cent of senior academics are female, the report says. Spain also has the seventh-worst “glass ceiling index” score (a measure of lack of opportunities for female career advancement used by the European Commission) in the EU, it adds.

With an international research stint increasingly an “expectation for researchers”, a “marker of excellence” and an “accepted ‘rite of passage’”, both women and men were under intense pressure to do some type of research abroad, the paper claims.

However, doing international research mainly in the pre-doctoral phase did not always aid women’s studies or long-term career development, said one of the study’s authors, Carolina Cañibano, from the Institute for Innovation and Knowledge Management, a joint institute of the Spanish National Research Council and Polytechnic University of Valencia.

“If researchers know they have to be away for at least half a year and if they wish to have a family, they might think ‘let’s get it over and done with it as soon as possible’, whether it makes sense from a scientific point of view or not,” Dr Cañibano told Times Higher Education.

Requiring all researchers to have an extended period of international research as a condition of promotion, as found in Spain and other countries, may also discriminate against women, given the trends observed in the study, added Dr Cañibano.

“Mobility is an enriching experience when it is organised appropriately and properly timed in the career, but [making it] a ‘rite of passage’ is potentially discriminatory for women,” she said.

More policies to encourage, but not force, mid-career women to be internationally mobile should be considered, such as adapting mobility scholarships to the number of children scholars have, Dr Cañibano added.

jack.grove@tesglobal.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Who wrote the report? There's no citation listed and I'd like to read it in its entirety, if possible.
The article's title is Gender and patterns of temporary mobility among researchers - author and journal are listed above

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