Women academics still feel gender-based pressure

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

Despite legislation for equal treatment irrespective of gender and the valuable contribution made by the Aurora and Athena Swan initiatives, women in academic life still feel that their career progression is threatened by entrenched bias, both conscious and unconscious. According to a research project completed by the British Federation of Women Graduates (BFWG), this threat particularly applies to 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 last 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.

The project was inspired by a BFWG Colloquium held in 2011, addressed by women who had reached the top 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 supportive men  and the need to ensure that head hunters are fully briefed on the women available to be put forward for top jobs.

Sixty one women at various ages and stages in their academic careers, from different universities and disciplines, were interviewed. It was apparent that younger women faced some of the same issues as the older interviewees but that in recent times men and women at the beginning of their academic careers were facing particular challenges. The research 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 remains that respondents across all age groups, especially among the younger ones, pointed to “unconscious 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, harassment and lack of promotion opportunities have disappeared today’s lack of job security, a seemingly uncaring system which demands undeliverable work levels and publication demands and the divide 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.

Further information on BFWG can be obtained from Gail Sagar, gailsheridan75@hotmail.com, 07786 577425

Further information on the research process and findings can be obtained from Dr Gillian Hilton

gillianlshilton@gmail.com, 07527 145813

Note: The British Federation of Women Graduates was established in 1907 in Manchester to advance the careers of women in academia and is the voice of women graduates in England. As a founding member of Graduate Women International (GWI) it promotes the necessity of education for women and girls globally. It provides money for Ph.D students to complete their research at UK institutions. It is also a member of University Women of Europe (UWE).

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