Author: Shumaila Yousafzai, Associate Professor in Entrepreneurship, Nazarbayev University Graduate School of Business
Women in higher education still hold fewer leadership positions and earn less than their male counterparts. How can female academics achieve equity?
- Less than half of academic leadership positions are held by women, and numbers are lowest in STEM fields.
- COVID-19 widened the gender gap, because more women than men sacrificed time at work to care for family members and handle household chores.
- Equity will be achieved only when universities, affiliated educational organizations, and governments launch gender-inclusive initiatives.
You cannot be what you cannot see. That’s why role models in all sectors are incredibly important. If a little girl never sees a female doctor, police officer, or engineer, how does she know if she can aspire to one of these professions?
At institutes of higher education, female academics in top leadership positions are role models who influence future generations of female academic leaders. However, there is a well-established glass ceiling that prevents them from advancing beyond a certain level.
More than half of all PhDs are awarded to women, but higher education is still largely a man’s domain in which women face obstacles at all stages of their careers. This is true even though publicly funded educational institutions have for decades been openly committed to equal opportunity. This results in profound impacts on the professional and mental well-being of women academics—which leads to fewer women joining the next generation of female leaders.
By the Numbers
In an ideal world, highly capable and qualified women would fill half the leadership positions in advanced academia. But the numbers indicate we are far from that goal.
As of 2022, just one-fifth of British universities were headed by female colleagues. In Europe and North America, the percent of female academics lingers between 10 percent and 33 percent. More precisely, it is around 17 percent in the U.K. and as low as 5 percent in the Netherlands.
The discrepancies are particularly noticeable in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). An article from Futurity notes that, in the U.S., women earn about half the doctorates in science and engineering but comprise only 21 percent of full professors in science fields and 5 percent in engineering. An article from Yale Scientific notes that women account for only 28.2 percent of tenured STEM faculty and 11 percent of STEM department chairs.
A great deal of research also has established that women in these fields face discrimination in the hiring process, receive lower student evaluations, encounter more challenges in securing funding, have difficulty acquiring recommendation letters for submission in the promotion process, and face increasing demands to do administrative jobs. In fact, a 2018 article in The Guardian stated that 90 percent of funding for engineering and the physical sciences in the U.K. is awarded to projects that are led by men.
The gender-based pay gap is also significant—across all of academia, not just STEM fields. For example, a report from University and College Union notes that, among 198 colleges in England for which it had data, the gender pay gap for all staff types was 10 percent.
Women in higher education not only have to contend with pay gaps and funding hurdles, but also face challenges that are more difficult to quantify. For instance, female academics lack well-placed mentors who can champion and support their ambitions. When female academics are also mothers, they face institutional structures and unconscious biases that are unsupportive of family-related career breaks.
At the same time, they often perform work that goes unrecognized. Through personal experience, I have witnessed female colleagues taking on important roles that demand dedication and benefit their institutions, but most of these roles are not recognized as pathways to leadership positions. Strong evidence suggests that, on average, female academics perform more service activities for their universities than their male colleagues do. The time required for these activities impacts their productivity in other areas, such as research and teaching, and leads directly to negative salary differentials and reduced opportunity for academic promotion.
Female academics perform more service activities for their universities than their male colleagues do. The time required for these activities impacts their productivity in areas such as research and teaching.
This reduced opportunity is related to the sticky floor—the concept that, compared to men, women are less likely to start to climb the job ladder in the first place. Combined with the glass ceiling, the sticky floor can create an academic and professional environment where women are unable to progress as far as their male colleagues do.
COVID-19 has emphasized the inequities between men and women and renewed the urgency of achieving gender equality in academia. Research from the Complutense University of Madrid documented that, during the pandemic, female academics spent more time than their male colleagues did on activities such as caring for children, caring for older family members, and performing more domestic chores in the absence of household helpers. As a result, they came under extraordinary pressure and lost more productivity than their male colleagues did during numerous lockdowns.
The pandemic also appears to have set back the efforts of female researchers, because the number of journal submissions from women has dropped dramatically since the virus appeared. As academics all know, journal publications are a critical factor in promotion decisions, so this lack of research productivity could very well have a long-term negative effect on the careers of female professors.
While we have seen some progress toward equality in academia, we still have a long way to go. We need to ensure that women are progressing through the ranks into the academic leadership roles they deserve and that they are getting adequate payment for their expertise. To do this, we need more proactive strategies in higher education—from universities themselves, and from the organizations that serve them.
At the university level, administrators could take specific steps to promote equality. For instance, in 2017, the University of Leicester in the U.K. announced its intention to increase the number of female professors by 1.5 percent each year and fill at least 30 percent of its professorships with women by 2020.
Other schools could take equally impactful steps. Perhaps they could make equality a key performance indicator in their quality audits. They also could pay serious attention to the training, mentoring, and career development programs directed at female academics, and they could specifically support women who are returning to work after maternity or career breaks.
Organizations that serve higher education also need to focus on gender equality. For instance, funding and grant-awarding bodies should include “gender-responsive implications and impact” as criteria when assessing funding applications.
Some organizations have already launched programs designed to develop future female leaders in academia. These include the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative of the Higher Education Authority in Ireland; Aurora, a leadership development program for women that’s run by the higher education organization Advance HE; and the Athena Swan charter, an Advance HE framework that supports gender equality within higher education. In fact, in the U.K., universities that want to receive public funding for research must now achieve an Athena Swan award, which expects the schools to adopt principles that promote gender equality for women.
If academia is to shatter the glass ceiling, the most important step that university administrators can make is to acknowledge women’s invaluable roles and contributions.
Sometimes the greatest progress occurs when gender equity is promoted at the national level. For example, Austria has instituted policies that offer financial incentives to universities that appoint women to professor positions. This has led to a system that incorporates gender analysis as well as development and mentoring programs. Similarly, in Sweden, half of the vice chancellors are female academics, because these appointments were made by the state rather than the individual universities.
While these initiatives are encouraging, their numbers must expand before we will see any real impact. In addition, universities must be willing to dedicate the time that is required to properly implement gender equity measures. But as universities take a gender-transformative approach, their policies, practices, and procedures will become naturally more diverse as a result.
Benefits for All
If academia is to shatter the glass ceiling, the most important step that university administrators can make is to acknowledge women’s invaluable roles and contributions. Everyone in the field must recognize that men and women can play equal roles in ensuring that students succeed, that research advances, and that inclusive academic communities thrive.
By ensuring that women are properly represented at all levels of leadership, universities will create workplaces that are fair, inclusive, and gender-just. More important, they will foster more productive, respectful, cohesive, and collegial academic communities where women can fully contribute as academics, teaching staff, leaders, and researchers.
Universities with gender-diverse leadership may also see benefits to their bottom lines. A 2020 report from McKinsey & Company indicates that companies whose executive teams are 30 percent women significantly outperform those with fewer or no women executives. As a result, there is a 48 percent differential between the most and least gender-diverse organizations.
In my personal journey as a woman in academia for more than 20 years, and a mother for 12 of those years, I have witnessed firsthand the unspoken gender-based discrimination and unconscious bias that exist in academia. There is a real and insidious attitude that permits lowering the status of female academics, especially those who are also mothers. I have seen women who are systemically excluded from leadership positions and denied agency in their academic work.
I have also witnessed worn-out academic mothers who are consumed in their attempt to “do it all.” I have observed, with envy, the academic trajectory of my male colleagues and childless female colleagues whose intellectual paths are strewn with stimulating professional possibilities that they are able to seize because of their autonomy, enhanced agency, larger incomes, and lack of familial responsibility.
Countless times I have been made to question my life priorities and choices, to put my chin up, to accept that I can have either a family or academic success, but not both. I have come to realize that the current academic culture of constant productivity allows only for superficial adjustments for female academics who have children. Unless higher education takes proactive measures and exhibits honest intentions, the top table of academia will continue to look as archaic as it did decades ago—and it will remain that way well into the future.