Breaking barriers for women: enough talking, time for action

In the second part of their ‘breaking barriers for women’ series, seven female academics outline key changes to help remodel a fairer HE system from the ground up


University of Sheffield,
2 Sep 2022
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Higher education needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to make it a fairer place to work for women

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Are women in science worth less? Surely this is not the case. Yet we devote great time and energy to working out just why women are, in practice, worth less than their male counterparts. The myriad reasons for the loss of women from the academy are not mysterious, and even less so for women who are also racialised, disabled or LGBTQ+: lower pay; less job security; higher teaching and admin loads; more housework and caring duties at home; fewer papers; and less funding.

If we accept that women should not be disadvantaged, it is time for effective, transformative change. We need change that moves beyond ideas of “inclusion” into a rigid academic system built for a (white, straight, able-bodied, etc) male archetype (equally uncomfortable for many men) to a flexible system that allows a diverse cohort to flourish and progress. These changes must not seek to “fix” those outside the archetype but embrace the diversity they bring. Here, we outline some major challenges in gender equity and suggest actions to change them.

1. Addressing the Swan in the room

Athena Swan – the UK higher ed awards scheme recognising initiatives on gender equality, diversity and inclusion – is a badge of honour for universities and departments, encouraging them to invest in this important mission. But with this success comes risk. The pressure to succeed creates competition between universities, places extreme stress on individuals preparing Athena Swan submissions – disproportionately women – and incentivises actions that give superficial or even illusionary change rather than effective, long-term shifts.

Actions often seek to fix a lack of women with measures that increase the visibility (i.e. workload) of those who are present – increasing representation on interview panels, committees and as seminar speakers, taking on mentoring roles, endless leadership programmes and more. Meanwhile, male counterparts can keep their heads down and focus on research-related tasks.

Somewhat ironically, our first suggestion is to reset the runaway power of the Athena Swan award. Reward collaboration between departments and institutions. Ensure that those putting in the work in are recognised and supported – and not necessarily all women. Audit existing and proposed actions given the burden on the under-represented they seek to help and balance any benefits with this cost. If this approach results in a few “manels” then let that be a signal that a department must hire more widely.

2. Don’t fix women, fix the system

Diversity and inclusion can often promote the idea that women and under-represented groups need to adapt. “Women lack self-confidence, don’t push themselves forward and need training to become great leaders”, is a familiar refrain. But could it be that the environment simply fails those for whom it was not designed? In academia, success is strongly linked to subjective metrics, from citation rates and impact factors to student evaluations. These metrics systematically fail women – women’s publications are cited less often and teaching evaluations have frequently been found to be biased. Access to time, money and resources is unequally distributed across genders, embedding inequalities no matter how far women lean in.

If diversity is to flourish it is the system and not only the individuals who must adapt. A shift in evaluation metrics to capture the different ways academics contribute will increase the diversity of academics being promoted through the system.

3. Equal work and equal pay

Female academics starting their first labs tend to take on more teaching and administrative duties and are often appointed at a lower salary grade than male counterparts. Such inequities at early career stages have lasting effects on career progression and financial security for women. One view of this is that women are bad negotiators. They must learn to ask for more and be better at protecting their time. But it is the system that should be changing.

Many current university/departmental systems still parcel out administrative roles through volunteerism or quiet chats in corridors. They still base pay and promotion on active application – with informal support networks key to decoding when and how it is best to do this. Instead, departments must allocate support roles fairly, assessing and levelling workloads across staff, as well as increasing transparency of the promotion system to ensure expectations on performance are equal between genders, and human resources should track starting salaries to eliminate early gender biases. Lasting, effective change requires change from the top.

4. Rebuild it, and they will come

It can sometimes feel like academia is a members-only clubhouse. Inclusion efforts that aim to welcome new members in, without removing the barriers that originally kept them out, perpetuate the same exclusivity that existed before. To change the membership, we must rebuild the clubhouse to allow access and support to previously under-represented members. Established members must actively champion individuals who are not visible in the current system. This can be achieved through progressive mentorship: promoting the mentee’s accomplishments; recommending new opportunities; facilitating introductions; and nominating them for awards and prizes.

Members should call out bad behaviour among peers. Bullying and harassment is targeted substantially towards minoritised groups and remains a hidden barrier to academic progression and a key source of loss of brilliant academics from the system. Finally, members must acknowledge equity above equality. Women may take longer career breaks at crucial times in their career, as well as face disproportionate demands and expectations at work and home – and that’s not a fact to be hidden or ashamed of.

Lack of diversity at senior academic levels is not because under-represented groups don’t have “the right stuff” to make it. It comes from a lack of appreciation of and action against barriers that penalise these groups in the current system. Ensuring academia doesn’t just “welcome” diversity but is built to support the diverse needs of its entire community is essential for its success.

Ellie Harrison is NERC independent research fellow at the University of Sheffield.
Jo L. Fothergill is reader in microbiology at the University of Liverpool.  

Kayla C. King is professor of evolutionary ecology at the University of Oxford.
Nicola Hemmings is Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin research fellow at the University of Sheffield.
Siobhán O’Brien is assistant professor in microbiology at Trinity College Dublin.
Susan E. Johnston is Royal Society university research fellow at the University of Edinburgh.
Tiffany B. Taylor is Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin senior research fellow at the University of Bath.

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