Equal partners? Why female progression isn’t all about women

30 January 2018      Sophie Harris, Deputy Director of Human Resources

Sophie Harris, Deputy Director of HR at SOAS, University of London travelled to the States with the support of the UHR-CUPA bursary. Here she continues to reflect on the barriers to female progression in higher education.

Prior to my trip to the US, I identified three separate but interrelated areas that I felt had an important impact on female academic progression. In previous blogs, I've described my findings in two of those areas: division of labour in the workplace and gender stereotypes.

While the third area, balancing career and family, is arguably one of the most obvious influences on female career progression, I took the opportunity of my visit to explore some of the other issues that form part of the complex tapestry of factors that affect progression. 

Nevertheless, a discussion on progression is incomplete without some exploration of this important issue. Moreover, despite much discussion and intervention, it's an area that stubbornly continues to have a significant impact on female progression.

Women occupy a significant presence in higher education. For example, at SOAS, 60% of PhD students are female. However, representation decreases quickly with seniority. In my blogs, I've been exploring the various reasons for this. The low number of women at the most senior levels affects the gender pay gap, as well as being a poor reflection of the student body. The staff standing in front of our students don't 'look like' them, which can be problematic in terms of role modelling. 


Why is this the case?

One explanation of the situation is that the early years of academia often coincide with the years when people want to start a family. For women, long hours, difficult travel schedules, the rapid proliferation of knowledge (particularly in science subjects) and high levels of competition can make academia incompatible with family life. 

In a previous blog, I described how female staff commonly spend significantly more time than their male counterparts advising, mentoring and supervising students. This role often does not benefit them in terms of promotion, prestige or pay, and may even hinder the acquisition of these more quantifiable rewards.

In academia we are facing a situation where we need to attract and retain those women who are now the majority of PhD recipients, but who are often not able to achieve their full career progression and have a family. We also need to support those men who are committed to active family participation but feel thwarted by contradicting cultural norms. 

Research shows both men and women in male dominated occupations make more trade-offs that favour their jobs over families than do those in more gender integrated occupations. Cultural schemes still exist such that men interpret devotion to work as holding greater moral significance than devotion to home. 

The American approach

I discovered that the US follows a different system for promotion to the UK in that academics have seven years to achieve tenure and, in so doing, move from assistant to associate professor. Research shows that academics may accept jobs at less demanding institutions or move out of academia altogether when the pressure and expectation becomes too much. It is also the case that maternity leave in the US can be very short, and often unpaid.  

To combat the incompatibility between the pre-tenure period and the ability to start a family, many US universities began to offer policies that allowed pre-tenure primary carers to ‘stop’ the tenure clock, thereby delaying their tenure review. While on the one hand enabling family life, on the other this only serves to further increase the timescale to promotion for the primary carer - who is more often than not the woman. Clearly there are more significant cultural issues at play. 

However, it is interesting to note that the undefined promotion timetable, and longer period of maternity pay and leave in the UK, doesn’t seem to have translated into significantly higher numbers of women in senior academic roles. There are many provisions that HEIs can, and do, put in place to support parents of all genders with families. At SOAS, we have recently reviewed our offering, further enhancing paid family leave and offering paid time off for emergency childcare. In addition, we have introduced emergency and out-of-hours payments to enable parents to attend conferences, promote their research and develop networks, or access backup childcare at short notice. 

Social and cultural barriers

However, having these policies in place isn't enough.  

There are still social and institutional barriers that prevent men in particular from greater involvement in child rearing. I still see cultural schema at play that assumes that mothers will take primary responsibility for childcare and fathers will be the breadwinners. This is reflected in policies that weigh support towards the female, or primary carer, such paid research leave after maternity leave or enhanced maternity leave and pay. 

Universities have a role in supporting all genders to achieve a balance between work and family life. This means introducing or expanding provisions that can benefit all, rather than providing something that is ‘special’ for women.

Both women and men may not access family-friendly programmes out of concern that in doing so, they will not be considered ‘career academics’. Additionally, men can sometimes express reluctance to access policies that they believe have been designed for women. US research shows that use of family-friendly policies can result in career penalties. This is consistent with reports that academic staff are often hesitant to use family friendly provisions that could support progression, even when they are eligible to do so.

Staff need not only to be aware of the provisions they can access, but also feel able to access them without detriment. Ensuring that academic heads and deans promote family friendly policies and provisions within their departments will be important to their success.

In other cases, the challenge is not necessarily the lack of access to family friendly provisions but re-entering academia after time away, when research and technologies have moved on. For this reason it is not uncommon to hear of women who plan their maternity leave to fit in with the summer break, returning to work at the start of the autumn term. 

So what next?

I suggest that we:

  • Ensure policies are easily accessible and widely communicated on a regular basis
  • Ensure heads of departments promote polices within their departments so that staff feel able to access them
  • Develop policies that recognise dual care and apply equally to both the primary and secondary carer
  • In promotion, acknowledge that time out for childcare will the affect quantity of output over an extended period. Consider whether quasi 'stop the clock' provisions could be introduced for both male and female staff, not only to recognise the period of time out for maternity/paternity/adoption leave, but also to recognise the early years of a child's life
  • Perhaps more usefully, this could be an extended period of research leave for the primary carer, of any gender (many HEIs provide one term, but could we offer more?), or a reduced teaching load, again for the primary carer

Until we are able to engage fathers and secondary carers as equal partners in the flexible workplace, barriers to female progression will continue to exist. 

Sophie’s trip was supported by the UHR-CUPA bursary, which is now open for 2018 applications. She will be speaking about her experience at the Showcasing Good Practice event on Wednesday 7th February 2018.

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