Academic Women and the challenges they face

Research from the British Federation of Women Graduates (BFWG) highlights the problem areas

The British Federation of Women Graduates’ (BFWG) qualitative research on women in academia has found that gender issues still exist, though these can also affect men. Legislation on equal treatment irrespective of gender plus the valuable contribution made by the Aurora and Athena Swan initiatives has seen progress but women in academic life still feel that their career is threat-ened by entrenched bias, both conscious and unconscious. This threat is particularly prevalent in older men who still seem to dominate decision-making in many UK universities. In a 2017 EU report on progress towards gender equality at work, the UK had made no progress on this issue in the previous ten years. Underscoring this situation in academia is women’s lack of appropriate training as leaders, lack of support and mentoring, women’s own conditioning to accept the roles assigned to them rather than fight for more career-defining opportunities, and by obfuscation on the gender pay gap.

This project was inspired by a BFWG Colloquium held in 2011, addressed by women who had reached senior roles in academia. This examined issues such as women’s reluctance to challenge the status quo, the complexities of reconciling a career with childcare, the involvement of support-ive men and the need to ensure that head hunters are fully briefed on the women available to be put forward for top jobs.

Sixtyone women at different ages and stages in their academic careers, from different universities and disciples, were interviewed. It was apparent that younger women faced some of the same is-sues as the older interviewees but that in recent times men and women at the beginning of their ac-ademic careers were facing similar challenges. The emphasis was on feelings rather than numbers with some surprising data gathered on being overlooked for promotion and unable to get papers published as women.

With 45% of academic posts now filled by women it is disappointing to find that at many universities women still struggle to make themselves heard and appreciated. Society has changed so that most people now accept in principle that gender-based discrimination is unacceptable, but the fact re-mains that respondents across all age groups, especially among the younger ones, pointed to “un-conscious bias”. While the law protects against discrimination it is hard to implement on the ground, and women are still less assertive in demanding fair treatment. While the blatant sexism, harass-ment and lack of promotion opportunities have disappeared today’s lack of job security, a seeming-ly uncaring system which demands undeliverable work levels and publication demands and the di-vide between teaching only and research positions have replaced them and affect all genders. There is still some way to go for real equality to be achieved and as a result the losers here are not just women but the whole higher education sector.

Questions about women’s equality in higher education institutions (HEIs) have been asked since the early 20th century and it is pertinent that women doing the same course as men were not granted degrees universally in the UK until the 1950s. Gender discrimination was an underlying theme of the 2011 BFWG Colloquium on Female Leadership in Higher Education: Overcoming the Barriers – real or imagined’? This identified women’s reluctance to take risks plus their lack of self-esteem as factors in a very real situation. That women still tell stories in 2019 of discrimination, being overlooked for promotion and being unable to get their papers published indicates that, while some progress may have been made, it is by no means enough. It should concern everyone that today, despite the fact that 45% of all academic staff are women, 78% of professors are men. Women make up only 22% of professorships in the UK.

The type of entrenched attitudes which still exist were dramatically illustrated in 1997 in the USA. Stanford neurobiologist Professor Barbara Barres transitioned into Ben and overheard her work be-ing denigrated – “Ben Barres is much better than his sister”. This enraged him and he championed women encountering bias in academia until he died in 2017. A colleague who transitioned the other way found her invitations to present papers and join committees declined, her work and her leader-ship qualities taken much less seriously.

The sample

Interviewees were sought from all UK institutions. Sixty women of different ages, at different stages of their careers including retired, in different disciplines and from different university types were in-terviewed. While the large majority were from a white ethnic background, black African and black and Asian English were present as a small minority. Levels in the hierarchy covered vice chancel-lors, deans and chairs, heads of departments, senior managers, those seeking work or having a teaching role alongside their PhD studies and those in temporary positions after their PhD (post docs). Semi-structured interviews using open ended questions were carried out by BFWG mem-bers, who were either already experienced researchers or were trained via paper instructions and email. They were conducted by Skype, phone or face to face and collated by the lead researcher who examined them for emerging themes, commonalities and differences. A Research Ethics Committee was involved at all stages.

Methodology: Qualitative v quantitative

According to many women researchers, when it comes to research men have an almost obsessive focus on numbers. Women often prefer to look at the factors between or underneath the numbers, extracting an arguably more realistic picture of the subject they are researching. For this reason, the BFWG project is purely qualitative, creating an opportunity for respondents to express all as-pects of their experiences and feelings related to the project which used purposive sampling across a wide range of disciplines. Content and theme analysis was then used to pinpoint similarities and differences between older and younger women. For some interviewees this was a cathartic experi-ence indicating the depth of feeling and frustration experienced. By including questions around the extent of support received, the impact of their domestic situation and encouragement to be ambi-tious, the project was able to extract the reality which many women face which cannot be ex-pressed in numbers.
The stories were examined for the similarities and differences faced in these women’s careers and for any themes from the ideas presented. These were compiled to produce a coherent narrative.

Summary of results

There are more similarities today in the challenges faced by men and women than previously occurred and employers need to reconsider their attitudes to all staff. This is within a climate of too few permanent posts available and the reluctant acceptance of most to sign short term contracts. This has to be seen in the context of funding for universities, especially those who are under-endowed.
The gender pay gap still exists but, because money is a dirty word in this context, it is not trans-parent. The 2017 EU report on gender equality, supported by detailed information from the Fawcett Society in 2018, placed the UK low in the ratings, on a level with Slovakia and the Czech Republic and well behind Scandinavia, the Netherlands and France. A subsequent 2019 report on UK univer-sities cited major gaps in both pay and bonuses, much of this down to the lack of women in higher paid jobs. The largest gap was 33.7%.
Significant differences in starting salaries of early career researchers were found with attendant lack of support and mentoring. This depends on the university concerned and the discipline chosen. For example, in the sciences, maths and engineering women are still not progressing to senior grades.
Pregnancy and maternity leave can result in many women being made redundant with little re-dress and, according to the Fawcett Society, paternity leave has not been very successful in re-dressing the balance while flexible working is often not available, despite provisions being made in law.
Harassment in the workplace is still very much of a reality. The TUC’s Everyday Sexism Project says that “52% of women have experienced it in some form and 80% did not report it to their em-ployer “(Fawcett Society 2018).
In-built male prejudice still exists in publishing research. Even today a male name on a research paper means it is more likely to be published These biases can be implicit but they affect women’s career progression.
There has been an exponential rise in teaching only contracts, even when someone expresses a desire to do research and this seems to affect women more than men. This could be an uninten-tional outcome of the Research Excellence Framework (REF). What is certain is that the closer the REF the greater the increase in teaching only contracts
Women are pressured into taking on mundane, time-consuming roles which did nothing to im-prove their promotion prospects and which men refused to do.
Athena Swan has made some progress, depending on the institution and discipline but early career responders said that having a family was all but impossible.

Some story excerpts

• Although I finished my career at senior management level I should have pushed more for Profes-sorship – I had the publications, had made a lot of money for the university, been involved with European grants and worked in Europe for the university and other bodies. However, no-one en-couraged me to go for it. The environment was not favourable for women. I regret that. (Retired Head Dept Education 1992Uni)
• I would have liked to make Dean. I was a Deputy but had no real encouragement (Retired Head Dept Sociologyi).
• I wish I had started earlier. I would like to make Professor but am not sure I have the energy now (Principal L Law 50s)
Note: all these had children and were from different disciplines
• I like where I work but think that the standard of student ability has dropped considerably in the last few years. There is not the same ability to analyse critically and I think that just doing teaching would bore me after a while (Senior L International Relations 30s), also with an unpaid post as a research assistant in a Russell Group university)
• I applied for 45 Post Doc posts before I got this one (Post Doc Physics 20s)
• I can only do this because my husband works in the City and earns a very high salary (Post Doc Vet Sciences 30s)
• I am satisfied with the work but not the precarious nature of the work with semester only hourly paid contracts. The pay doesn’t equal the work done and I cannot plan for the future (Lecturer, t Business 50s)
• The work/life balance is poor, the amount of work is unsustainable, most people (but not me) work ridiculous hours and this is increasing if anything – totally different than 20-30 years ago (Reader Engineering (40s)
• I am very angry I was never awarded Senior Lecturer level. There was total discrimination against women, gender discrimination was rife. I was the first woman in the subject area (Lecturer Engi-neering Retired)
• I was told (by a man) I would never get promotion in that university and not to bother to try. I had to change jobs to a different university. There it was totally different. was supported and encour-aged to apply for and achieve promotion (Prof. Education Retired)
• In that position (Post Doc) there is no entitlement to maternity leave. I did get pregnant but lost the baby. Now I have a more permanent post and I am still worried about maternity leave and asking for part time work. The top people are all men, though 75% of the students are female now and there is no support for family life. Clinical work starts at 8.30 and finishes at 18.00, too late for pick up from a nursery and there is no child care provision on site, despite us being in an isolated position away from such services (Lecturer Vet. Sciences 30s)
• I did not try to get promotion until the children were older and I felt I could cope so am slow in my progression. I was a Deputy for ages. (Dean Social Sc 40s)
• I love the work but can’t get a post doc place full time. I am working on two different projects, very stressful, and am in my thirties (Post Doc research Sciences 30s)
• It took ages to get a post doc position and some of the interviews were awful. I think because it was for Physics there was an anti-female bias and I am also an Asian Post Doc Physics 20s)
• The best thing to do is to work overseas as there is more respect for academics and better sala-ries than in this country (Senior L Health 50s)
• The environment in higher education is hostile, a blame culture, always the fault of the individual here (Lecturer Social Work 30s)
• I feel under threat in academia with government funding cuts and the devaluation of performing arts education in schools (Senior L. Drama 30s)
• I’m frustrated like others with the increasing bureaucracy of the institution (Prof Sociology 60s)
• No allowance is made for the time writing and publishing takes (Senior L Education 50s)
• I work in Engineering as the only woman and have the only telephone on my desk which I have to answer. All callers assume a woman who answers is the secretary (Researcher Engineering 20s)
• At my initial interview to join the maths department as the only woman I was interviewed by seven white men, all with beards. At the time I did not even question whether this was right but now I do everything I can to ensure that interview panels have a gender balance and possibly at least one representative from an ethnic minority (Prof. Maths 50s)
• I had to explain to my appraiser (also my head of department) that I could not take on any more work by showing him my teaching timetable at which he was astonished, apologised and with-drew his suggestion (Prof. Maths 50s)

Women’s challenges

Unconscious bias
While older women talked about discrimination, younger ones tended to use the phrase “uncon-scious bias” while two young women said that as a result of women only programmes for progres-sion there is now discrimination against men. However, this was the exception. Most cited maternity leave and child care as major hurdles with negative attitudes among some university leaders who regarded it as a waste of time to bring returnees up to speed, especially in the sciences, psycholo-gy, health sciences and engineering. Some universities were leading the way by banning early and late meetings and expecting men to take their full paternity leave but these were still exceptions.
Unrealistic expectations
There were strong feelings from all age groups and HEI types about the pressure of academic work, the unrealistic expectations of their employers and the effects on their lives. These were not necessarily gender related – rather the desire to achieve a work life balance by all. While older women tended not to have had children, younger women don’t want to make this sacrifice and it was pointed out that academia may be losing a lot of talent to industry where pay and hours were so much more realistic.
Research approaches
Bitter complaints were registered from women in science and psychology regarding men taking over in the choice of research approaches, favouring quantitative techniques whereas many wom-en (and some men) prefer a qualitative approach which is often dismissed as non-scientific. Some women moved universities to overcome this problem but the tide of male dominated research was against them.
Sexual harassment
How to deal with sexual harassment remains an issue, though more men now do their best to pro-tect vulnerable young women who are offered preferment or publishing opportunities in return for sex.
The familiar shouting down or ignoring of women in meetings after which the points they made are greeted favourably when proffered by male colleagues remain an issue. Attempts to pacify women when they complain revolve around their “attractive” appearance rather than their ability (“that dress is very pretty and makes you look lovely”).
Women’s expectations
Some women seem not to notice evidence of gender discrimination even when they are providing it. One respondent asserted that she suffered no discrimination and that her treatment was always fair, yet five minutes later complained that when she first arrived, she was expected to make the tea.
Building productive networks still seems to be better done by men. Many women mentioned the need to be noticed, a problem when they are physically isolated. “I am in a building a good distance and across a road from the main building where all the important people are and there is not time to get there for coffee or lunch, so most of the people there have no idea who I am or what I do It is not good for my career but I can’t do anything about it” (Researcher Engineering 20s).

Promotion structures
Several women mentioned unclear promotion structures which differ between universities and do not favour those who are self-deprecating. Possibly because of conditioning, many women feel that if they don’t meet every criterion, they have no right to apply for promotion. However, universities which have panels to assess draft applications and give feedback on how to improve were highly praised.
Lack of assertiveness was also to blame for the pressure on women to take the soft, caring time-consuming roles which men would refuse to do on the basis of not having the time.
Juggling for low pay
Many raised the difficulties at Post Doc stage of doing others’ research and having to juggle differ-ent posts at the same time for very low pay, though they were unanimous in saying that this was the same for men in their first jobs
Gender pay gap
The secrecy surrounding the gender pay gap, particularly at higher levels, concerned many. Re-spondents acknowledged that women often accept what they’re offered while men tend to negoti-ate a better salary.

Possible solutions

• While many universities now offer courses to empower women to take charge of their careers these need to be tailored to the demands of academia. Too often they are delivered by people coming from the business world who do not appreciate the context of academic life.
• Create a climate of transparency on pay and promotion prospects by better enforcement of legal frameworks already in position
• Train male academics in how to behave in order to create an environment in which their female colleagues can thrive rather than being discriminated against, put down and ignored
• While there are presently uneven results across universities, those with a pro work/life balance culture should be seen as a model to be rolled out throughout academia
• Encourage universities to be more proactive in mentoring and developing their staff (both male and female) with a model appraisal system which all can use
• Initiate blind reviews of papers for publication to remove the seeming bias against female authors
• Create exciting teaching preparation programmes – “I did not finish it as it was so poor”
• Introduce positive discrimination to create opportunities for non-white candidates and those from a working-class background

Then and now

Most respondents enjoyed their academic roles, even those with caveats as to how things could be improved. However, it was becoming increasingly difficult for both men and women to obtain per-manent status as opposed to short term contracts – a problem which is a very recent manifestation.
Today’s academics are expected to absorb high administration loads following the money saving removal of admin staff including having to learn new computer programmes to record data, and this tends to affect women more as they are often burdened with mundane, time-consuming roles which the men refuse to accept
The younger respondents all cited the difficulty of managing a family life while pursuing an aca-demic career and, while there are some illuminating exceptions, this remains an issue. In past times women academics ended to have chosen a career over children but today’s women do not accept that this is a way forward for them. Therefore, the ability to attend conferences and network de-pended on having a supportive partner at home
Many cited the desirability of child care facilities within the university but wondered whether this would be even discussed until more women were leading universities
Changes in the law plus training and support initiatives had made things better in the opinion of older respondents but younger women felt that the paternalistic, patronising culture within universities still created problems for them with regard to promotion and valuing of their contributions.
Whereas men in the past had left it to women to field all the caring roles, today’s generation strongly felt that this should be shared more evenly and there was evidence of some universities taking a proactive stance in this regard
Today the law encourages women to complain if they feel they have suffered gender-based dis-crimination but, some universities excepted, there was little actual support from the hierarchy, es-pecially the human resources departments and this is a practical issue which needs addressing
The excellent Athena Swan initiative was influential but its effect was often patchy across universi-ties and disciplines, with departments sometimes employing rather a tick box approach. Older women saw this as another element in supporting women’s progress which they would have appre-ciated.


With 45% of academic posts now filled by women it is disappointing to find that at many universities women still struggle to make themselves heard and appreciated. Society has changed so that most people now accept in principle that gender-based discrimination is unacceptable, but the fact re-mains that respondents across all age groups, especially among the younger ones, pointed to “un-conscious bias”. While the law protects against discrimination it is hard to implement on the ground, and women are still less assertive in demanding fair treatment. While the blatant sexism, harass-ment and lack of promotion opportunities have disappeared today’s lack of job security, a seeming-ly uncaring system which demands undeliverable work levels and publication demands and the di-vide between teaching only and research positions have replaced them and affect all genders. There is still some way to go for real equality to be achieved and as a result the losers here are not just women but the whole higher education sector.

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