An academic career is challenging for anyone, yet the gender gap suggests that the current system continues to favour men. There are a number of particular factors that women face and, late last year, I realised that these challenges fall into two main categories. I was fittingly sitting in the Federation of Graduate Women’s Suite in Old Government House listening to Professor Maureen Baker present highlights from her recent book Academic Careers and the Gender Gap to women from across The University of Auckland (UoA). It wasn’t uplifting. The message seemed to be that not a lot has changed for women since Professor Baker began her career in 1975. During question time, someone made the comment that most senior academic women did not have children. Decades ago, a woman left the workforce when she married; now, women often leave academia around the same time as they have children.
So, the first of my two categories of challenges women face are universal to all women. These include the fact that success rates for funding and publications are lower for females than males, and young girls are raised to be nurturing and compliant rather than competitive and assertive. These factors will impact the careers of all women at some stage, often in very subtle ways and throughout their working lives. The second category of challenges I will call ‘circumstantial’ because these depend on the situation a woman is in. These include career responsibilities, parental leave gaps, periods of part-time work. Women are more likely to suffer the bulk of the burden of caring for elderly or sick relatives and very young children. Within my circle, women in a relationship are also more likely to be the following partner when a couple or family moves overseas or interstate so their career opportunities are severely restricted. These circumstantial factors do not impact all women, but when they do, they can be catastrophic for a promising and even flourishing career.
If it is true that most women who make it towards the top do not have children, and it may be fair to assume that childless women are proportionally more likely to make it to associate professor and above, as they have avoided at least the main circumstantial challenges women face in caring for children. In order to increase numbers of women at senior levels in universities, women must find ways to sustain their careers through periods of disruption from family circumstances. Some universities have policies, programmes, and funds to address this issue, but the gender gap remains.
Last year I was a participant in the UoA Women in Leadership (WiL) programme. Academic and professional women with leadership potential from across the university attended a retreat and many workshops and seminars throughout the year as part of the programme. We were each carefully matched with a mentor for inspirational one-on-one coaching. What a hugely humbling and valuable experience it was. My networks ballooned, my career toolbox is stocked, I have some fabulous new friends and I’m informed of the policies I can call on to advance my career while caring for young children. Now that I’m out of that warm cozy cocoon, however, I’m struck by the mismatch between the policies and the culture. It seems to me that the UoA has some of the best policies to support women working through circumstantial factors. The merit relative to opportunity and the flexible work policies are particularly useful to me, but it is one thing to know those policies are there and another to know that others will apply the policies. Sly comments about part-time work and the expectation that revisions can be turned over in one night are just two examples of subtle indications that a tiny minority of people (often old timers) don’t really think these policies are valid.
As we were learning about the policies in the WiL programme, I did think that broader education on these policies was required. Sadly, it’s not just the contents of the policies that need to be publicised but also their value and importance, because a very small number of individuals don’t seem to grasp the need for a diverse workforce. We were informed that managers are educated on these policies; however, I think young men should also be informed. Not because they are the ones making the comments but because these policies apply to their partners and to them. In fact, I think men should have been included in many WiL sessions for their own benefit and that of women. Men as well as women benefit from more inclusive and thoughtful policies on childcare.
Excluding men from such activities can build resentment that women receive special treatment when men also face significant obstacles while building their careers, especially when a young family is involved. A group for early career women I used to attend was referred to as ‘secret women’s business’ by one of my male colleagues and while this was said in jest, I couldn’t help feel the divide between us when that was said because of the negative connotations of that expression. Funnily enough, this individual has been amongst the most supportive of my peers.
Support from peers is so important for career progression and sanity. One of the strongest recommendations to come out of Henry Etzkowitz’s (2000) work, Athena Unbound: The Advancement of Women in Science and Technology, was that individuals should build strong networks. Those women who were most successful worked in teams, especially during child-rearing years. I have certainly made this approach work in my own career. I would like to emphasise the importance of men who have supported me through collaborative work (for mutual benefit). Men are our allies, particularly when a woman is working in a field where there are few other women (or others on the team are on parental leave!).
However, it’s not just women who will benefit from the inclusion of men in such programmes and networks, men will also benefit. In the current academic culture, the circumstantial factors women face are more likely to have an impact on women’s careers. However, they are not exclusive to women. More and more men are taking extended periods of parental leave, and some men choose to work part-time. These situations need to be supported for men as much as they do for women and when men feel comfortable to do these things in significant numbers, there will have been a significant cultural shift which will benefit women, men, departments and families.
In practical terms, I’m not suggesting men should attend the whole WiL programme, and there certainly needs to be a space where women can openly discuss issues in academia relating to gender, but I do think men with families would benefit from formal mentoring and networking with women at similar career stages. Where funds are available to support conference attendance with a supplement for women with small children, this option should be open to men, too, because many fathers I know would also like to take their families with them. This type of inclusiveness is so important for real cultural change throughout the workforce.
The Australian Academy of Science Early and Mid Career Researcher Forum recently released their paper on Gender Equality: Current Issues, Best Practice and New Ideas (http://science.org.au/policy/documents/GenderEquityEMCRForum.pdf). The third section addresses women with young children. In the context of the policy document, referring to ‘mothers’ and ‘women with babies’ is appropriate but where possible, I think gender neutral terms should be used. Policies at the university or institution level should be written to include men and women, so the idea that either parent can be the primary caregiver is enforced.
However, the best bit of the document on is buried on page 8, in the section on people with carer duties and the importance of work culture:
Creating a work culture where spouses, especially men, are not adversely judged for choosing to take a primary carer role. For example, ensure that male researchers’ mentors are positive about men being primary carers and provide practical advice on how to balance being a primary carer with research. This is particularly important for single parents.
I believe that when the work culture of universities changes so that neither men nor women are adversely judged for being primary carer then the gender gap will close and men and women with and without children will be fairly represented at all levels of the academic scale. And when policy becomes culture, that is when the policy is no longer needed. What an exciting day that will be!
Cate Macinnis-Ng is a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Environment at the University of Auckland. Her research involves quantifying impacts of climate change on carbon and water cycles of forests. Her work is particularly relevant given the current summer is the driest in 70 years and all of the North Island of New Zealand is in declared drought.
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