Gender inequality in academia: not just about numbers

frances-amery-28575-0236By Fran Amery, University of Bath (Co-Convenor of the PSA Women and Politics Specialist Group)

Discussions of gender inequality tend to focus on numbers: that is, the numbers of women represented in a certain positions. Whether the focus is gender ratios in Parliament or the Cabinet, recipients of STEM degrees, or in the boardroom, equal participation of women is often treated as the benchmark of gender equality.

This pattern is sometimes reflected in conversations about gender inequality in academia. In particular, proposed solutions to gender inequality in STEM disciplines often focus on encouraging girls to choose science, in order to create a ‘pipeline’ of young women who will go on to become researchers and academics.

There is, however, a problem with this focus on numbers: increasing the number of women in an organisation or in leadership positions does not always lead to drastic change within that organisation. Political science research has found, for instance, that increasing numbers of women in legislatures can make little difference to policy decisions when socially conservative attitudes are entrenched in the political culture. Similarly, research on gender in academia finds that increasing numbers of women in disciplines such as engineering do not necessarily translate into a decrease in levels of discrimination against women; when sexist attitudes are entrenched, women may assimilate to the dominant culture rather than challenge it.

None of this is to argue that equal participation is not important. There is, at least, evidence that better representation of women is a necessary if not sufficient condition of gendered organisational change – not to mention that it is inherently fairer.

However, focusing on numbers can conceal structures and practices that disadvantage women. A few of the hurdles facing women academics are outlined below.

Tensions between work and family life are often found by women academics to be a major problem. Academic life is structured on the model of an (implicitly male) ‘ideal worker’ who either does not have children, or has a wife who deals with the majority of the housework and childcare – and is therefore able to devote evenings and weekends to work. Those who do not conform to the model are thus at a disadvantage when it comes to productivity. It is not, of course, only ever women who face this difficulty. But women are more likely to find themselves in the position of having to juggle work and family life, and more likely to leave academia due to the perception that the two are incompatible.

Further to this, academic roles are often gendered. First of all, women are more likely to be employed on part-time and temporary contracts, with the accompanying lack of stability and difficulty of career progression. But academic roles are also gendered in that women are more likely to be assigned stereotypically ‘feminine’ roles. Women are more likely to work in teaching-only positions, or to have a higher teaching load. Additionally, women may be more likely to find themselves engaged in ‘institutional housekeeping’ such as committee work and preparation of reports, alongside the emotional work of pastoral and care roles. These roles are generally institutionally devalued, and unlike research, unlikely to be rewarded with promotion.

Another problem relates to professional networking. Research shows that women have difficulty gaining access to ‘male’ academic networks. This can be due to time constraints – those with childcare responsibilities may not be able to participate in out-of-hours socialising – but in addition women may simply not be invited into these networks. This process can start as early as during doctoral research: women PhD students are less likely to form the same bonds with their male supervisors as men. The effect of this is that women are less likely to be invited to collaborate, less likely to be encouraged to apply for jobs or promotions, and excluded from informal decision-making.

Finally, there is the matter of discrimination. Sexism remains a problem even in ‘enlightened’ academia, and discrimination against BME and working-class women is even more intense. Heather Savigny’s interviews with women academics highlight the cultural sexism women face, from sexualisation to the assumption that ‘women aren’t good at research’. What is most concerning about her findings is the number of women who feared repercussions if they were identified.

While efforts to encourage women and girls into STEM are helpful, they do not tackle many of the underlying problems. These are problems which go beyond raw numbers, and indeed may be concealed when it is assumed that increasing rates of participation lead to lower levels of inequality overall.

This blog was originally posted on the . 

Leave a Reply