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Changing the sex of academia: A complex operation?
October 12, 2011 - 9:46am

The academic marketplace is expected to be democratic and it is therefore assumed that women should be represented in continuously increasing numbers. But although research has shown a clear trend of women gaining improved access to academic positions for some decades, barriers to equality are still at play.

As is already well known the representation of women tends to vary worldwide according to the disciplines, academic rank, and the prestige of the institution— the more prestigious the field and the position, fewer women. Furthermore, the more “teaching oriented” a position is, the less likely that it will be occupied by a man. I hear some people saying “these are differences, but inequalities?” Yes, indeed— everything else being equal, women have less access to the most desirable positions. For example, when examining access to full-time positions, after controlling for age, marital status, having children at home, father’s education, academic rank, discipline, and internationalization of career, gender appears highly significant in predicting employment status in 8 of the 12 European countries included in our research sample. The same applies regarding access to permanent employment in more than half of the countries studied.*

I also hear people say, “But women prefer teaching, that’s why they teach more, isn’t it?” Strange, but when asked about their interest in research, senior women academics answer in the same proportion as men that research is their primary interest. Still, when compared the teaching load of both populations, women teach two hours more on average than men. And if we look at variations between countries, no link appears between research interest and teaching load. A choice? Really?

How does one explain these disparities? Gender biases are to be found at systemic, organizational and societal levels. At the system level, for example, there seems to be a correlation between the proportion of women in a higher education system and their representation in the various disciplinary fields— the higher the percentage of women at the system level, the more equal their distribution across disciplines, including “historically more masculine” ones. Additionally, where most employment is full-time, gender inequalities decrease. Still, increased access to academic positions is not sufficient to guarantee gender equality in access to the most secure positions.

At the organizational level, recruitment processes are under scrutiny. Research confirms that the probability of a woman being recruited increases if there are women on the recruitment committee (Van den Brink et al. 2000), and when recruitment criteria are standardized and less subjective (Musselin, 2003). Within organizations the schedule for career advancement is also influential— the later tenure is granted, the more women tend to be disadvantaged. Earlier awards of permanent employment favor equality because they do not create the same conflict between professional and family life. In the same vein, recruiting to a tenure track position (as opposed to hiring a full professor) also favors a better representation of women.

The barriers at play are different depending on the segment of the academic market considered; the mechanisms hindering gender equality in access to top level academic positions are not necessarily the same at elite institution and less prestigious sectors or on local marketplaces.

Finally, societal issues are also important. When comparing gender inequalities in European higher education systems, it appears that the largest inequalities are at play in societies that have retained a strong division of social roles (and rights) by gender.

The transformation of the academic market testifies to a transformation of the gender issue, from masculine domination to another, from the “woman as other ”, as formulated by Simone de Beauvoir (1949), excluded from the profession or limited to a perceived maternal part of it (taking care of students), to a woman “in a man’s image.” Women often feel pushed to abandon opportunities in order to be part of the academic world of excellence (such as not having kids ). She remains constrained by her alter ego and “male role” and substitutes a plurality of professional models for the long-standing dichotomy of gender roles that play out still in most societies today.


* Data in this blog partly comes from the EuroAC research (The Academic Profession in Europe) carried in 11 European countries.

Musselin C., 2003, "Academic markets. How they work", Conference paper, Women in European Universities, Training and Research Network.

Van den Brink M., Brouns M., Waslander S., "Does excellence have a gender ? A national research study on recruitment and selection procedures for professorial appointments in the Netherlands", Employee Relations, Vol.28, N°6, 2006.

See also recent work by Goastellec on the Swiss academic market, 2010, 2011.


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