Mind the gap: six ways to address the under-representation of women in top academic roles

Gender pay gap data recently published in the UK has been compulsive reading for many – and academic institutions have not emerged well.

Analysis by Nature shows that universities, funders, pharmaceutical companies and other science-focused organisations maintain a gender pay gap 50% greater than the national average.

This pay disparity is in part attributable to the lack of women in higher-paying academic leadership roles. Higher Education Statistics Agency figures reveal, for example, that while women make up 45% of the academic workforce in the UK, more than three-quarters of professors are men.

It’s a global issue. In India, where women hold more than 50% of university teaching positions, the percentage of women vice-chancellors is a shocking 3%. While women outnumber men as assistant professors and lecturers in the US, men outnumber women by a two to one ratio when it comes to full professorships.

While the data may be new, what it tells us about inequality is depressingly familiar. But a new accountability and impatience with the old status quo does seem to be building.

Getting it right in the institutions that shape the leaders of the next generation will significantly increase our chances of making the workplaces of the future stronger, fitter and fairer.

So how can we accelerate change and achieve the diversity needed to ensure the best talent pool for the challenges that will face academia in the years to come?

Here are six ideas:

Recognise the issue

Being clear and uncompromising in identifying the issue is key. As Alison Johns, Chief Executive of Advance HE, puts it, ‘As a starting point, organisations can recognise the imperative of diverse leadership: not only for compliance (which is really a minimum requirement) but also because studies demonstrate that it improves impact and effectiveness and, quite honestly, it’s the right thing to do.’

Remove barriers at the recruitment stage

A significant challenge to tackle at the outset is the existence of unseen but powerful barriers to women accessing jobs in traditionally male-dominated fields. Studies show that gendered language in job ads (think ‘competitive’ v ‘committed’) sends subtle but potentially damaging signals to women that they do not belong, reducing the number of female applicants. We set out ways to identify and address this here.

Address early career job insecurity

In the early stages of a researcher’s career, lack of job security (caused for example by dependence on short-term contracts) often hits women harder than men. Lauren Couch, head of diversity and inclusion for the Wellcome Trust, argues that job insecurity ‘tends to have an effect on those who feel less confident, or those from disadvantaged backgrounds, that sense of precariousness and not knowing what the next steps are will likely push more women and those from disadvantaged backgrounds out…’

This stage in a woman’s career can sometimes coincide with pregnancy. Some funding bodies cover maternity leave; others don’t. Even where they do, it can get complicated – and precarious. While salary costs may be covered over a maternity leave, there may well be no provision for the ongoing costs of research which in many cases cannot simply be put on hold for up to a year of parental leave. Handing a project over to another researcher can put intellectual ownership and paper authorship at risk, jeopardising not just a job but also possibly a career.

It’s clear that the removal of barriers to women’s advancement through this stage of their academic career urgently requires focused attention and creative solutions.

Refuse to tolerate harassment

Academia is sadly not immune to wider societal issues of harassment. A New York Times case study on Harvard Business School reports that, ‘Female teachers, especially untenured ones… faced various troubles over the years:… students who destroyed their confidence by pelting them with math questions they could not answer on the spot or commenting on what they wore.’ One woman who left without tenure commented, ‘As a female faculty member, you are in an incredibly hostile teaching environment, and they do nothing to protect you.’

What’s more, the nature of the researcher-adviser relationship can create additional difficulties. Heavy dependence on advisers to pursue and complete research and get recommendations for future jobs can leave women vulnerable to sexual misconduct, while reporting issues could endanger a woman’s academic career.

Goldsmiths, University of London is just one institution taking concerted action to address this, including changes to its reporting process and the appointment of a new sexual harassment strategy and review manager. Read more here.

Be proactive

A range of organisations are taking a deliberate and determined approach to addressing the under-representation of women in top roles. The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s  Aurora programme, for example, brings together leadership experts and higher education institutions and has seen over 3,000 women take part over the last four years. Case studies from four participating universities are available here.

Alison Johns (Chief Executive of Advance HE) believes men have a key role to play: ‘Senior men in the sector also need to recognise (and I know many do) how they too can help women moving up into senior positions. I think it’s very positive to see we have an increasing number of male Aurora champions as well as a number of men stepping up into mentorship positions as part of the programme.’

Review leadership models

Research by academics at the Universities of North Carolina and Texas suggests that scholarly work on leadership has in the main been conducted by men and focused on male leaders. This has resulted in male-centric leadership models which have limited women’s aspirations to leadership roles. Evidence that women leaders are more likely to adopt a communal, participative approach than one that is transactional or hierarchical indicates that it may well be time to re-think accepted models.

It is our hope here at Global Academy Jobs that, as momentum builds, women and men in the academy will come together to address this issue and dismantle a longstanding inequality – making the future of the sector brighter for everyone.

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Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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