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Institute of Health and Wellbeing Early Career Researchers' Blog

Gender imbalance in academia and the Athena SWAN award

  • Aug 27 / 2014
  • 1
Academia, Matt Jamieson

Gender imbalance in academia and the Athena SWAN award

By Matt Jamieson

In August 2011 Glasgow University joined the Athena SWAN charter, a scheme which recognises excellence in higher education and which is particularly focused on increasing the representation of women in academia. The beliefs underpinning the charter are: That the advancement of science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine (STEMM) is fundamental to quality of life, and that it is vitally important that women are adequately represented in what has traditionally been and is still, a male-dominated area. It is stated that science cannot reach its full potential unless it can benefit from the talents of the whole population, and until women and men can benefit equally from the opportunities it affords.

One of the charter’s principle issues is the high loss rate of women in science, from undergraduate to professor, and this is something I’ve always wondered about while studying psychology. When I began my undergraduate degree in psychology, women made up 90% of the class. However, now during my PhD, I’ve observed that the majority of professors and senior teachers are male. In Britain 45.1% of non-academic professorial candidates are women. However, a 2013 times higher education survey poll showed that in some universities less than 10% of the professors are female. Why is this?

It may be due to differences in confidence when seeking a promotion. It has been reported that men generally need to have about 50% of the skills which would qualify them for a promotion before they feel ready to take it, while women who have 75% of the skills may still take themselves out of the running. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that the men are getting the jobs they apply for, in a competitive culture such as academia, where many people are vying for a small number of positions, this difference in confidence can be influential.

Implicit bias of employers might also impede the progress of women from PhD level to a stable academic career. A study at Yale University created fake graduate student profiles. When scientists thought they were evaluating real students, those with male names were rated as more competent and hireable than those with female names. Importantly, the scientists making the selections did not use sexist reasoning for not hiring as many women. The authors don’t suggest that this bias comes from a conscious desire to impede the progress of women, but from a subconscious bias stemming from exposure to a cultural stereotype that women are less competent.

Another influential factor for those who choose to have families may be attitudes towards childcare. Recently a professor was talking about a time he cancelled a conference appearance because his child was ill. He was amazed at how impressed his colleagues and friends were with what he considered to be a necessary responsibility of parenting. It seems that a woman would be judged harshly for putting her career before her child, while a man would not be – rather, he would be rewarded with praise if he prioritised his child over his job. This implicit attitude within society may hinder the progress of women in academia. If childcare predominantly falls to working mothers then it will be harder for them to progress in their career than it would be for working fathers.

I think it is important to consider what the next generation of academics can do about the high loss rate of women in science. Some of the Athena SWAN principles point to possible solutions. It mentions that the system of short-term contracts has particularly negative consequences, and I think this is especially true if there is no career development offered, for example during RA placements which are not on a career track. It also calls for a change in culture and attitudes, for commitment and action at all levels of academic organisations and an increase in diversity at management and policy-making levels. Finally, the Athena SWAN award itself can encourage gender equality at institution level as it acts as proof of commitment to diversity and equality necessary for some funding awards.

This type of award also encourages discussion about a topic which is rarely discussed in the workplace. So what do you think? Will this situation change over time? Is the Athena SWAN award enough to make a change or is more action required? Are women just less interested in senior teacher and professorial roles? Or does the system and implicit cultural attitudes create a glass-ceiling? Are there other important factors I’ve missed?

One Comment

  1. Sally Wyke

    One of the best things about changing practices to support women’s careers in academic life is that they support men’s too. The changes proposed and enacted will enable both women and men to deliver their caring commitments without guilt and for all to manage a healthy balance between the work we love and the other life we want want to lead. The latter will be essential for younger academics who will need to be working until quite late in life.

    Reply

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