Women’s progression — how it starts from the top

Simone Buitendijk
University of Leeds
5 min readMar 8, 2022

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On International Women’s Day, as on all other 364 days of the year, gender inequality in academia should be high on our agendas. Women at all stages of their careers still too frequently find doors closed to them which they can’t unlock without much-needed support from others. Leadership from the top and an institutional approach are pivotal for change.

A small door nestled within a stone wall. There is a small sign which reads: “Pull”.
Kettlewell, Yorkshire Dales

The research evidence for bias against women in academia is overwhelming. Decades of studies show that building university careers is more difficult for women around the world. The more competitive the academic field and the more prestigious the position, the less likely you are to find a woman in the role.

We have made some progress. It is less common nowadays for people to think that women are less capable than men to succeed or lead. We also have anti-discrimination laws in most countries. However, bias against women in leadership is still very pervasive and women, from a young age, face many hurdles that men don’t encounter. Even if every single hurdle is small, when stacked up, they can easily become an insurmountable mountain.

“Bias is inherent both in individuals’ beliefs and in institutional structures, with the latter still primarily built to favour men’s careers.”

Despite the fact that women graduate in similar or slightly higher numbers to men, that advantage quickly gets lost and the percentages in PhD, postdoc, assistant, associate and full professor roles diminish progressively. In the majority of universities the percentage of female professors in the STEM fields is 20% or less. I hope we can all agree that this is not a capability issue. So what, then, is the cause of this problem? Evidence clearly shows it is a combination of bias in wider society and in academia. This bias is inherent both in individuals’ beliefs and in institutional structures, with the latter still primarily built to favour men’s careers.

Take STEM subjects. Research shows that female students are less likely to lead project groups and as a result are less likely to be interested in a career in relevant fields. More broadly, women who make it into an academic career are less likely to be promoted, to be paid at the same level, to become a principal investigator, to have their research papers quoted, to reach positions of academic leadership, or to receive stellar reviews from students. Even when randomised trials examining bias have been carried out, supposed female applicants – with CVs identical to those of supposed males – are less likely to be chosen to lead a research group and more likely to receive a lower salary offer.

“The denial of rampant bias is the most significant impediment to change.”

An extra layer of bias is reserved for academic women who become mothers — the so-called “motherhood penalty”. They can unfairly be seen as less committed, less dependable and less hard working than women without children. This could be viewed as an example of intersectionality: the phenomenon that people can suffer from disadvantage from more than one background characteristic. Just look at the example of black female academics, who suffer from more discrimination than their white female counterparts. According to the Women’s Higher Education Network, only 35 of the more than 22,000 professors in the UK are black women.

Beyond this, sexual harassment and intimidation happen with shameful frequency in academia, and much more often to women than men. It is just a matter of time before the #MeToo movement takes full effect in academia, and when it does, the vast majority of those affected will be found to be women who were subjected to harassment relatively early on in their careers. Sexual harassment can do terrible things to self-confidence and mental health. If coupled with the threat of loss of career, it can put the victims in a position where their commitment to their work and their sense of job satisfaction is likely to plummet.

“This issue is so deep-seated, it is highly unfair to leave it to individual female academics to fix it. Support from the top is pivotal.”

So what can be done? In my opinion, the most important step is that we all, as individuals in academia and as institutions, stop denying something is wrong. The denial of rampant bias is the most significant impediment to change for two reasons. First, it stops institutions from looking at systemic, structural solutions and it makes those affected by bias, discrimination and harassment feel ignored at best, or guilty at worst. At an institutional level, the self-reinforcing rationale goes that, if there is no bias, if we have a fair system, if academia is a meritocracy where the best make it to the top, there can only be one explanation if individuals don’t get there: they are not good enough. Academic women internalising that message collectively lose self-confidence which, together with institutional biases and a system that favours men, creates a perfect storm of female academic disadvantage.

This issue is so deep-seated, it is highly unfair to leave it to individual female academics to fix it. Support from the top is pivotal. As universities, we cannot be the best version of ourselves if only certain groups make it to the top and get to make the big decisions. There are some urgent actions we should all take: we need to devise comprehensive institutional statistics to locate and call out the disadvantage; we need safe spaces for women to speak up and share their stories; we need to routinely ask whether gender bias is at play across our staff and student communities and our processes; we need to change our institutional processes and culture, such that we don’t always reward highly competitive, individualistic behaviours; we need to start thinking about encouraging different (leadership) styles in academia; and we need to equally value research group work, societal impact through research, and teaching.

We need to be clear about behaviours we won’t tolerate, and give female students and academics confidence that we will take them seriously when they report that their boundaries have been crossed. We need to counterbalance, wherever possible, the many hurdles and disadvantages that women face.

Even though gender inequality is a deeply ingrained societal issue, there is a vast amount we can do in universities to enable women to reach the top in equal numbers to men. If we are to be the excellent institutions we need to be to change the world, we can truly create a fairer future for all of humanity.

A version of this article was originally published by Research Professional News on 8 March 2022.

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Simone Buitendijk
University of Leeds

Vice-Chancellor at the University of Leeds.