From the Atlantic to the Pacific: Turning the Tide on Female Academic Progression

27 September 2017      Sophie Harris, Deputy Director of Human Resources

In Sophie's latest blog post from her trip to States (supported by the UHR-CUPA bursary), she discusses the method of female academics meeting in small groups to help with improving progression in higher education. 

During my visit to UMass Amherst, I was keen to identify some concrete actions that academic colleagues, either through their research or personal experience, had found made a real difference to female academic progression.

There was clear consensus from the professors I met that small groups of female peers meeting regularly to provide mutual support and mentoring was a bright spot in improving progression.

What is the method?

  • Small groups, of around four women
  • Groups should be cross-departmental
  • For best effect, the groups should be visibly supported by the University, for example, paying for the groups to meet for lunch on a regular basis. So while the cost is relatively low, the University is making a demonstrable commitment to the initiative. 
  • Provision should be available throughout the career, not just for early career academics.  

Interestingly, when I later met with Professor Perla Myers at the University of San Diego (USD), she described a recruitment intervention introduced as part of their Advancing Female Faculty in STEM programme, which had unexpectedly resulted in mutual mentoring. Under this initiative, in addition to the usual research and teaching listed in the person specification, an essential criterion was for candidates to be able to evidence the strategies they had used to help advance women in science and could implement at USD. A cohort of eight staff was appointed (all female, though by coincidence rather than design) and by virtue of having been recruited as part of the same cohort, these women have formed a collaborative community, supporting one another to advance their own careers.

Why does it work?

1. Provides allies

In my last blog I described how the academic environment can generate challenging behaviour and is often focused on individual achievement. Having a trusted group of colleagues to discuss concerns with can promote a collegiate environment as well as aid retention. 

2. Provides informal mentoring

Research shows that men have greater access to informal mentoring opportunities than women and report sustained mentoring from a range of colleagues. I touched on expectation theory in my previous blog and it is again relevant here. Men may be more likely to be mentored in male-dominated fields, as their colleagues may be more likely to see them as competent, and thus worthy of mentoring. Men may also be able to more easily access networking opportunities such as after work events, perhaps because of reduced childcare commitments. Research has shown that for many of the women, this sort of informal collaborative work toward professional development can seem out of reach.

3. Benefits all participants

Women are more likely than men to report concerns about burdening mentors. This may be a factor in why individually assigned mentors are sometimes not engaged with at all. Of course it will normally also be the case that assigned mentors are more senior and therefore perceived to be busier or even perhaps less able to relate to their mentee as they have limited recent experience of the promotion environment. 

These concerns may again reflect unconscious attempts by female academics to live up to status expectations of women to care for others and think communally.

4. Promotion criteria can be vague

Research shows that women tend not to want to put themselves forward for a promotion (or a pay award) until they are sure that they meet all the criteria. However, if the criteria are vague, it can be difficult to know what is needed to be ready. The mentoring groups provide an opportunity for questions, discussion and mutual support and encouragement. 

What else?

An alternative but also valuable approach could be to set up monthly sessions focusing on special topics (e.g. balancing teaching and research, identifying collaborators, amount and type of admin to undertake, applying for research grants etc.). Again, it is suggested that these should not be exclusively for early career academics, but relevant topics offered throughout the career. 

Unfortunately these mentoring groups won’t solve the underlying causes of the disparity between male and female progression. But Chip Heath (a presenter at the CUPA conference and author of Switch), advocates a bright-spots focus, an approach that can create movement on even the most challenging issues.  Heath advocates recognising the early glimmers that something is going right and replicating them. So identifying and reproducing the strategies that have previously enabled female professors to gain promotion in the past, such as these small mentoring groups, can help others to achieve success. It’s a strategy of identifying what is working and doing more of it.

Find a bright spot and clone it – Chip Heath 

I would like to credit the work of:

  • Dana Britton, Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations, Director of the Center for Women and Work, Rutgers State University of New Jersey
  • Joya Misra, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  • Perla Myers, Professor of Mathematics, University of San Diego


Image: CC BY 2.0, WOCinTech Chat

Author: Sophie Harris, Deputy Director of Human Resources, SOAS, University of London

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