Inflexible Partners and Women's Careers

Female academics are frequently blocked from international work, and the problem isn't children, study finds.

October 15, 2015

Female academics may be held back in their careers more by inflexible partners, and less by the demands of children, than previously thought, a new analysis indicates.

In fact, one of the best things researchers can do to improve their chances of international research collaborations -- which can be an important career boost because they typically garner more citations -- is to have a partner who is also an academic.

The study, which used survey data from nearly 13,000 academics across 10 countries, found that although having children had a significant impact on female researchers’ careers, in some cases it mattered less to their prospects than whether or not their partner had a full-time job.

One of the authors, Kathrin Zippel, associate professor of sociology at Northeastern University, said this could be because it was more difficult to convince partners with a full-time job to move to another country. “What we believe is common sense: that partners, especially with full-time jobs and careers, are far less portable than children,” she said.

Female academics without children were more likely to collaborate internationally if they were single than if their partner worked full time, the research found.

It might have been expected that a partner’s extra income would help women to be involved in collaborations internationally, said Zippel, “but it actually could keep them from going abroad.”

Zippel cautioned that the survey “includes only women on the academic track and not those who left academia because they couldn’t solve work-family conflicts -- so an already privileged and selected group.”

Attention has often focused on improving maternity leave at universities to make it easier for women to continue their careers. But the research suggests that they might also look at helping women overcome problems relocating to other countries -- a “glass fence,” as Zippel called it, that is lower for men. Male academics in the survey were more likely to have partners who worked part time or were not employed, and might therefore be less tied down.

Female academics could be supported by the provision of financial assistance for their partner in a new country, she suggested.

“This is something that businesses have wrapped their heads around,” she said, but universities and funding agencies in most countries were “only just considering” it.

“There are lots of ways women are making it work to be involved in international collaborations but with little institutional help,” Zippel added.

The paper, “Gendered patterns in international research collaborations in academia,” also found that both male and female scholars who had academic partners were more likely to collaborate internationally, although the effect was stronger for men.

Zippel speculated that “academics understand how important it is to be involved internationally,” and so it was easier to convince an academic partner to be supportive of these endeavors.

Job flexibility might be another factor. “We as academics work a lot of hours, but we have a bit more control over when we work those hours,” she said.

The paper, published in Studies in Higher Education, was co-authored by Katrina Uhly, a Paris-based sociologist, and Laura Visser, a Ph.D. candidate at Radboud University Nijmegen, in the Netherlands.

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