PhD viva rule is ‘unfair on female academics’

New rules requiring a female presence on doctoral defence panels at the University of Glasgow will push more ‘unrewarded’ academic tasks on to women, critics claim

October 15, 2018
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A UK university’s decision to insist that female PhD candidates have at least one woman on their viva examination panel has been criticised for pushing unrewarded “academic housework” on to senior female academics.

While the University of Glasgow has won praise for its efforts to improve the gender balance of its doctoral examiners, some scholars have claimed that its new rule will heap further “unrecognised and unrewarded” academic duties on senior female academics. At present, just under one-quarter of UK professors are women, latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show.

In a series of posts on Twitter, Fiona Leverick, professor of criminal law and criminal justice at Glasgow, explained that because women are “massively under-represented at senior level” and it is “unusual to invite a junior academic to examine a PhD thesis”, the “practical effect of this is that the burden will fall on women to give up their time to convene vivas”.

“This work is unrecognised in work models and unrewarded in promotion criteria,” said Professor Leverick, adding that this is “one of many, many instances of women – because they are under-represented at senior levels – being asked to do the type of service work that is unrecognised and unrewarded”.

Other similar time-consuming duties include sitting on appointment panels and committees “so that they are gender balanced”, as well as acting as mentors [and] taking on managerial roles, she wrote.

“While we are doing all of this service work in the name of gender balance, my male academic colleagues can use their time to do the things that *are* rewarded and valued,” added Professor Leverick, who declined to speak directly to Times Higher Education about her comments.

Professor Leverick acknowledged in the thread that there are “good reasons to have a gender-balanced committee [of examinations]” but when the “burden of this policy falls on women, who already undertake a disproportionate amount of unrewarded and unrecognised academic service, I am not convinced that this is the way to go”.

Her comments gained support from several Twitter users, including Carol Taylor, professor of gender and higher education at Sheffield Hallam University, who said that the practice of “women doing the academic housework…has to stop”.

Others, however, noted that the issue was “super tricky” because some female doctoral candidates may feel more comfortable with a female examiner but are unlikely to submit this request.

A spokeswoman from the University of Glasgow told THE that it was “striving to ensure a better gender balance on all groups, committees and panels across the university – this includes viva panels for examining PhD students”.

However, the university said it was important that the workload implications of the new rule were recognised, as “in the short term, this can put pressure on female academics where they are under-represented”.

“It is right that [this extra work] should be recognised in the distribution of academic workload so that all members of staff are treated equally and fairly,” she said.

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Reader's comments (4)

Equality has to be shown in everything. If we speak about gender equality in the higher education, certainly, the number of women and men has to be balanced. However, to equality you should not go in the blind way. It is necessary to choose the best persons
This is a positive step provided the workload is acknowledged. There are so many female students over the years who have had to endure the effects of longstanding male domination of academia. It is important for them to see a female academic presence with equal power at such a crucial point for them. This will benefit all students. It’s ludicrous that this hasn’t been the norm long before now.
Better a willing and helpful internal examiner than someone who doesn't want perform the role.
I'm unclear what problem this is supposed to address. Is there any evidence that female PhD candidates at Glasgow are failed more often than male candidates? If so, does this trend disappear if a woman is on the panel? If there is evidence of that kind of discrimination, then there are serious grounds for concern, and I agree some action is needed, but in that case, keeping a video of the viva might be a less onerous way of ensuring fair play. But unless there is evidence of that kind, this measure seems unnecessary and misguided. In specialised areas it can be hard enough to find appropriate examiners, so restricting the gender just creates difficulties - on top of the extra burden on women academics. And as a woman, I'm also worried it could serve to reinforce the idea that we are poor weak things who can't defend our arguments in challenging situations. A PhD should train you to do just that.

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