There are many pieces of grit that together form a mountain. This is how one of the report authors describe the situation of women in academia. Considered separately, the obstacles that women encounter are not much greater than those that men encounter, but together they mean that women have to fight harder to succeed.

Women must fight harder to succeed in academia

Svenska 2021-06-16

Women who want to have careers in academia still encounter greater obstacles than men, but the differences are decreasing. The perception of women leaving academia more than men is not true, according to a new report from the Swedish Research Council.

The new report shows that women in academia encounter more obstacles than men in a number of areas. In each area, the differences are small, but the report nevertheless shows a pattern where women have to fight harder to succeed.

“There are many pieces of grit that together form a mountain,” says Lisbeth Söderqvist, one of the report authors and an analyst at the Swedish Research Council.

The report shows, for example, that women more often than men feel that they lack mentors, and find it difficult to combine working with parenthood. Women also find it more difficult than men to get the time to do research and gain merit.

67 per cent of men who only receive external funding spend more than 60 per cent of their working hours doing research, while 58 per cent of women with external funding do research during more than 60 per cent of their working hours. Of the group that funds its research time from a combination of sources, 53 per cent of men and 33 per cent of women spend more than 60 per cent of their working hours doing research.

Even when the research is funded solely within the framework of employment, men are able to spend a larger proportion of their working hours doing research than women can. Of the men who only have research time within their employment, 34 per cent can spend 60 per cent of their working hours doing research, compared to 25 per cent of the women.

Do no “leak out” of academia

There is a general perception that women leave academia to a larger extent than men. This is commonly known as “the leaky pipeline”, and is often stated as an explanation of why the percentage of women grows smaller the higher up in the academic hierarchy you go. But this explanation does not appear to be entirely true. Instead, the report from the Swedish Research Council shows that women and men leave academia to approximately the same extent, and the reason why they leave are uncertain working conditions and unclear career paths.

“Many young researchers have difficulty seeing a way forward in academia. This is strikingly clear,” says Stina Gerdes Barriere, project leader for the report.

Swedish higher education regulations define the various career steps for researchers clearly, but in practice things are more complicated, she thinks. After your doctoral degree and a postdoc position, you may be employed as an associate senior lecturer, then as a senior lecturer, and thereafter as a professor, but according to Stina Gerdes Barriere, the employment category ‘associate senior lecturer’  is used sparingly.

“Instead, many are employed as researchers, and then there is no clear career path.”

“Universities miss out on talent”

The fact that both women and men are leaving academia due to the working conditions is thought-provoking, according to the Norwegian researcher Hebe Gunnes. She is Senior Adviser to the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education, and has been a member of the reference group for the Swedish Research Council’s new report.

“The results show that the period after the postdoc position is crucial for determining whether researchers stay in academia. We saw the same thing when we mapped the postdoc regulations in Norway in 2020. If it is the case that many competent researchers, both women and men, leave academia, then you miss out on talent. It is important to find out why this is happening,” she says.

She also establishes that the description of working conditions in academia, as shown in the new report, goes straight to the heart of the ongoing discussion about the precariat in academia. Among other sources, she refers to the OECD report Reducing the precarity of academic research careers, which was published in May.

The report from the Swedish Research Council shows that the reasons why researchers leave academia differ slightly between women and men. Women state slightly more often that they left academia because they wanted more secure employment – 22 per cent for women, and 15 per cent for men. Men state slightly more often that they left because they wanted a more interesting job or better pay – 16 per cent for women, and 21 per cent for men.

“The most common reason why people leave academia is because they don’t get funding. Most feel that work in academia is very attractive,” says Stina Gerdes Barriere.

Gender equality goal for professors not achieved

According to the new report, it therefore seems as though women and men leave their academic careers to about the same extent. However, the report does show that the top level of academia is still a place largely dominated by men, but this too is changing.

In many subject areas, equal numbers of women and men are today recruited as professors, but this does not apply in natural sciences and engineering sciences, which have a large proportion of the total number of professors. There, women represent around 25 per cent of the newly appointed professors. In these fields, it will be very difficult to reach the Government’s goal of equal gender distribution among professors by 2030, Stina Gerdes Barriere believes.

“It won’t be possible.”

She explains that there are simply too few women who choose to study and do research in these fields. But even if it will be difficult, or almost impossible, to reach the goal, there is still room for the faculties in these male-dominated areas to get closer to gender equality among their professors.

According to the new report, the proportion of women in the recruitment pool is around five per cent higher than the proportion of women among newly recruited professors, which means that there are competent women who could be employed. The same applies in areas where gender equality has already been achieved among newly recruited professors. The proportion of women in the recruitment pool in these areas is between five and ten percentage points higher than the proportion of women among newly employed professors.

Hebe Gunnes describes the proportion of women among professors as the ultimate question in the work towards gender equality in academia.

“Gender equality in academia in Sweden seems to be fairly good at the lower levels. There, women’s and men’s careers develop fairly equally, but there is still some way to go to achieve gender equality at the highest academic levels,” she says.

Uncertainty among department heads

The new report is based on surveys of persons with recently awarded doctorates, a register-based study describing the career development of doctoral degree holders, and interviews with nine heads of departments in various fields.

Stina Gerdes Barriere thinks that the interviews with the department heads show that there is uncertainty about how to work with gender equality issues in the departments.

“They feel that they cannot support certain groups more than others, because this is unfair, but our study shows that the preconditions are not fair, and then you have to intervene.”

The study shows that it is not just women who encounter specific obstacles in their careers, but also other groups. For example, it emerges that persons belonging to the under-represented gender are often less happy at work, and feel less joy in working.

“It is more common for them to not feel part of the team, and here departments face an enormous challenge. I think that there is some awareness of the situation in relation to women in male-dominated subjects, but I don’t think many are aware that men also feel this way in female-dominated subjects,” says Lisbeth Söderqvist.

Based on the report, Stina Gerdes Barriere can see that better guidance is needed for department heads on how to work with gender equality issues, but to reach gender equality in academia, action is needed also at other levels. The fact that women have less good opportunities than men to receive research funding, less time to work on their research, and less chance to become professors is linked to women and men largely working in different research fields, and that the preconditions vary between these.

“We have a system where women and men are awarded differing amounts of resources because they are active in differing fields. The question is how far we can advance in the gender equality work without a reallocation of resources,” she says.

Text: Charlie Olofsson
Photo: gokhan polat/Unsplash

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