Navigating the labyrinth: why are the way-markers less clear for women?

by Dr Sonia Virdee

Are our values truly reflected in the HE sector?

Most of us, I think, work in HE because it accords with our values. We believe in the power that creating new knowledge and educating people has in making the world a better place: through social mobility, technological developments, enriching our culture, and contributing to well-being and prosperity. We enjoy being part of an enlightened, thinking community, where discourse, analysis and debate are welcomed and where many voices can be heard. We are used to diversity - diversity of knowledge, expertise, opinion; and many universities are truly global in their reach and in their staff and student communities, and/or recruit from across a wide socioeconomic range. However (and you must be sensing that there is a ‘but’ coming), we know universities and research institutes still have work to do on fully living up to these values when it comes to equality and inclusivity.

I started my university career in biological sciences research and in spite of quite a promising start, I found the job insecurity of short term post doc contracts and junior lectureships daunting, and I took a permanent role that was predominantly education focused. I found myself teaching and supporting a lot of part time and mature students, women returners, and students who had either not got it together at school or had been written off as not HE material, seeing many thrive in an environment that acknowledged their potential and sought to remove barriers to their success. I later moved into HE management and professional services, mainly in strategic planning and more recently as associate director for a scientific research institute, and through these increasingly more senior roles the potential of universities to transform lives stayed with me.

A letter to my younger self

If I were to write a letter to my younger self, I would tell myself to have more self-belief, to seek out mentors and supporters, and to try to stop worrying whether I was good enough. Because navigating the route to being a successful female scientist felt like trying to find a way through the labyrinth. At a deep level I identified with those students - most of them were capable, all of them lacked confidence and were, like me, the first in their families to study for a degree. What they often asked for was to understand the rules of the game - the criteria, expectations, and what they needed to do to succeed, so that they could begin to see what ‘good enough’ looked like. I have heard this neediness described as a lazy desire to be spoon fed, but I think this desire to fill in the gaps left by their own experience (poor outcomes at school, absence of social capital, lack of contact with friends and family in professional careers etc.) is entirely understandable. Where there is ambiguity about what it takes to ‘get on’, uncertainty about the rules and the criteria, what you need to do, who you need to get to notice you etc. there is self-doubt, and it does not just apply to students.

Attainment gap for women and particularly BAME women in the sciences

We know there is a problem with the representation of women in senior roles, which is even more marked for BAME women (there is not a single BAME, female head of university administration in the UK sector). Our women students are doing better - they are entering HE and succeeding, however this good news is tempered by the knowledge that so much of that talent and potential is not being realised after they leave university as progression to senior roles. The same cannot be said for BAME students where the attainment gap at university is still shockingly large.

In the sciences (and I am most familiar with biological and health sciences), there is a good gender balance among students studying at PhD level, and then the women start to disappear, and studies have shown how the playing field is anything but level:

  • Women academics are less likely to be published, work in elite teams (particularly in science where a spell in an elite lab can make your career), or obtain research funding than their male counterparts; when they publish they are less likely to be cited than men.
  • They are predominantly in lower grades and are on average promoted later than men. Women tend to be more reticent when it comes to promotion, waiting longer to put themselves forward and only when they are very confident of their case. The professorial pay gap at the University of Essex was a clear indication of this type of bias, and a pay adjustment was made to correct for it. This sort of action is effective, but is not able to address under-representation by women (especially BAME women) in senior academic roles - if they are not there they cannot be adjusted for.

Why are there so few senior female role models?

It seems that if you are male and white and have your sights set on a senior leadership role then the boot will fit. We have abundant role models around us that reinforce the ‘rightness’ of this vision of seniority and the leadership culture and narratives that surround it. Anyone navigating this territory who does not fit this template may find themselves asking why do so many women leave science research to pursue other careers? Why are there so few senior female role models? Is it really because they are not good enough, or are not committed enough, or not competitive enough? Or does it come down to charting that path through the labyrinth, where the signs, signals and way-markers can be less clear for women? Some things I think are highly significant:

  • Women are more readily deterred than men where the criteria for career progression or tenure are not explicit, perceiving greater risk and less job security, which in turn is incompatible with the needs of a young family or other dependents. They want to know and be sure that they fit these criteria, however they are often vague and open ended.
  • Women are uncomfortable with the highly competitive, alpha male culture in some science teams, which can spill over into aggression and bullying and/ or create an environment where women feel less visible and less valued. We are aware of the ‘big beasts’ in our organisations where a single minded focus on research excellence can mean good leadership principles are brushed aside.
  • Bioscience is male biased; most of the lab studies in vivo or in vitro use male human subjects, mice or cells. The prevailing message is that females do not warrant separate consideration, or there is a well-meaning concern that their hormonal cycles will complicate or obscure the physiological responses being studied. Even medication designed for use by females is often only tested on men! That hormonal fluctuations are greater in women has recently been shown to be myth; where studies have actually looked at hormonal variation in biomedical trials (and there aren’t many), males were actually found to be more variable than females because male hormone levels are mediated by and respond to social stimuli, changing dramatically depending on where they sit in the social pecking order.
  • There is depressing evidence that women academics are (perhaps unconsciously) rated less highly than men – showing a type of confirmation bias in favour of men when it comes to extending career opportunities, awarding funding and citing papers.  

A future enlightened approach?

All of this indicates that universities and research institutes need to do more, and to be more active in acknowledging the biases that exist and in seeking to rectify them. The publishing of figures on the gender pay gap and some high profile publicity about bullying in academia has already placed a helpful spotlight on the issues. We could do worse than think about the basics – ensuring there are transparent expectations and criteria for senior roles, including acknowledging the importance of ‘citizenship’, so as to remove ambiguity and create confidence around ‘good enough’; making support and mentoring for promotions and tenure applications routinely available and actively targeted; taking serious action where there is evidence of unfair treatment, especially in terms of pay; and finally, creating an expectation of inclusive leadership and a zero tolerance of bad behaviour. 

The TEF has forced us to take a forensic look at student outcomes by gender, ethnicity and disability and, seeing the evidence, institutions are taking steps to correct the biases and gaps that clearly exist. What will it take for us to start to actively address similar issues that affect staff? There are some very positive steps being taken to address progression and inclusivity in science e.g. Wellcome has set up Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity in Science and Health (EDIS edisgroup.org) in partnership with research institutes and pharma raising the profile and stimulating a critical debate about how science is conducted and its culture. I look forward to seeing the next generation of young female scientists, my own daughter included, benefitting from this more enlightened approach. 

Dr Sonia Virdee biography

Sonia was the first in her family to go to university and she bemused them by studying and researching ecology and evolution. She did eventually, to her parents' relief, get a real job teaching and developing flexible study routes at what is now the University of Suffolk, before moving into a Planning Director role at the University of Essex, developing new ways of strategic planning, doing projects and using data. Two grown-up children and 4 step kids later, and well in to her second husband, she left Essex after 17 years to become Associate Director at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. She is currently taking a short break and getting some decorating done.  

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