Does it Pay to be Nice in Academia?

20 September 2017      Sophie Harris, Deputy Director of Human Resources

While on her trip to the States, UHR-CUPA bursary winner, Sophie Harris, joined four colleagues at UMass which led to a discussion about barriers to female progression in higher education. In this blog post, she reflects on those themes raised. 

I spent the first few days of my study trip on the East Coast of the US and had the privilege of meeting professors at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Rutgers University, New Jersey, to discuss their research exploring barriers to female academic progression. 

It's been a fascinating whirlwind of information and ideas!

On Monday night, I joined four colleagues at UMass for dinner. A brainstorm about barriers to female progression generated a wide-ranging conversation, which in itself made me appreciate further the diversity of intersecting issues at play. 

I was particularly struck by a discussion about niceness and community versus individualism within the academy.

Colleagues perceived a striking imbalance between the work that academics are expected to carry out, and that which they are rewarded for. Like in the U.K., there are high expectations around research output and it is primarily research that is credited in promotion. However, academic staff are expected to spend a disproportionate amount of time on other activities that receive little or no credit, most notably service work (or admin as we refer to it in the U.K.).

The anger that this dissonance creates can be reflected in relationships between colleagues, but also contributes to a culture of individualism, where those colleagues who focus on their own research (often to the detriment of other activities), fare better when it comes to promotion than those who contribute to the wider department and institution. 

Unfortunately, women tend not to fare too well in this environment:

  • Perception of the work environment is one of the most important factors in job satisfaction and retention, particularly for female academics. So an environment where anger prevails may be offputting. 
  • Research with US faculty shows that women, particularly at the associate professor level, spend more time on admin and mentoring. While both men and women show a preference for research over admin, women appear to feel a particular pressure to ensure that the admin work is carried out. Furthermore, the relative scarcity of women at senior levels in academia can mean that they are called upon to a disproportionate degree in order to ensure balance panels and committees.
  • Expectation states theory suggests that women may be penalised for acting against status expectation. So attempts by women to avoid admin and take a more individualistic approach may be viewed as more unacceptable than if attempted by male colleagues. 

So as it stands, the research suggests that niceness and community don't pay in academia!

All this calls for a greater look at administration and how it is both rewarded and balanced equitably among academic colleagues. Not only can this help contribute to improved gender equity but also towards a more collegiate environment.

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Joya Misra, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at UMass who generously hosted me and helped facilitate my trip and to her colleagues at UMass and Rutgers who gave up their time to meet me:

  • Anna Branch, Professor of Sociology and Associate Chancellor for Equality and Inclusion
  • Dana Britton, Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations, Director of the Center for Women and Work
  • Jen Lundquist, Professor and Associate Dean of Research and Faculty Development
  • John McCarthy, Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Distinguished University Professor
  • Laurel Smith-Doerr, Professor and Director of Institute for Social Sciences Research.

Author: Sophie Harris, Deputy Director of HR, SOAS University of London

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