Moving On Up: Women in the Academy

A short while ago, I had the pleasure and privilege of taking part in an online discussion about women’s leadership in higher education hosted by The

May 26, 2011

A short while ago, I had the pleasure and privilege of taking part in an online discussion about women’s leadership in higher education hosted by The Guardian Higher Education. Three hours and more than 270 comments later, I had the feeling that we touched on some very important points but that the surface of the topic was barely scratched, and that there is so much more to think about. This is my attempt to put some order in my own thoughts provoked by that intensive exchange of ideas.

One of the questions launched by our energetic and enthusiastic host, Eliza Anyangwe, challenged the panelists to name the barriers women face when dealing with promotion in higher education. There have been so many studies conducted that provide supporting data to what most women experience as a general situation or feeling that it is difficult to relate to just one. In addition to several national studies, like the British or the Swedish, the European-wide research done in 2009 by the European Commission also identifies reasons why women are at risk of dropping out of the academia, known figuratively as the leaky pipeline.

The most obvious problem is the difficulty women have with putting together the life puzzle: how to balance an active professional life with a rich family life, including quality time with one’s partner and children. Personal experience often supports the general statistics. As it became clear in The Guardian conversation, women, especially in the United States university environment, have to face an impossible choice: “to either have a child or get tenure - to make a relationship work (which requires time and effort) or to get tenure”, as Mary Churchill put it then. Men holding high positions in the academic or administrative hierarchy of universities usually do not have the same dilemma, as they are often supported by partners who do not focus as much on their career (e.g. opting for part-time jobs).

So what is the solution? We are looking here at structural problems that embrace not just the academic world but society at large. The gender constructions and the stereotypes that usually accompany them place women in the traditional sphere of home, and allow a larger playing field in the public arena for men, who less often face the choice between a private life and a public career. The solutions therefore are seldom restricted to the university world and encompass, for example, governmental policies such as guarantees for parental leave that reserve time for the father. However, universities can make things better for their female employees by introducing some form of flexible time, perhaps in combination with child care facilities on site.

Another problem that appears in the figure above is related to the work environment. It is no secret that university structures have been fashioned so long ago that it is inevitable they carry the marks of paternalism. How can they shake off this negative heritage, and transform the work milieu so that it is more open and accommodating to women?

One of the solutions is networking. This much was obvious in our chat: integrating oneself into larger circles of like-minded people is key to the creation of better work environments. One can participate in female academic networks, but not exclusively. Being embedded in collegial networks where both men and women from the profession meet and collaborate, supporting each other and giving feedback is another strategy one can successfully follow. In this way, senior colleagues (most often men, as we know) can get to know their female colleagues and support their endeavours. Having a positive attitude, talking about one’s achievements in the open and without false modesty, and being self-confident are other ingredients that make networking function as a tool of leveling the academic playing field.

Finally, one other solution to improving women’s presence in higher education leadership is making university governance more democratic. As in other walks of life, democracy ensures higher participation and representation of all groups, and since women make up the majority of students, including at the PhD level, they will not have to fight against existing hierarchies but make their way through democratic means to the top of the echelons. Democracy brings also more accountability for the university leaders, who would have to explain for example why so few women reach the top of hierarchy.

More democracy, more flexible time, more inclusion in networks, these are the way forward.

Anamaria writes from Lund, Sweden. She is one of the founding members of the editorial collective at University of Venus.

Some interesting books on women, leadership and academia:

Jocey T Quinn (2003) Powerful Subjects: Are Women Really Taking over the University?. Stoke on Trent, UK: Trentham Books

Claire Shipman and Katty Kay (2009) Womenomics: Write Your Own Rules for Success. HarperBusiness

Diane R. Dean, Susan J. Bracken and Jeanie K. Allen (2009) Women in Academic Leadership: Professional Strategies, Personal Choices. Stylus Publishing

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