Inequality in academia

These are two sobering figures for the current situation in academia in the Netherlands:

Percentage of women professors in EU countries and the gender distribution in academic careers.

I have written about this before in a post on motherhood and academia. Before the end of year festivities caught up with me was at a symposium of the LNVH (Dutch network of women professors) where I had the pleasure to hear Prof. Curt Rice speak about implicit bias as the key to career differences between men and women. He argued that the confirmation of stereotypes leads us to forming an implicit bias where we, men and women alike, more readily see a man in a high profile function or on track to a professional career than a woman. If you think you are above this implicit bias, take this implicit bias test at project implicit and think again!

Implicit bias is like a blind spot: you don’t see it, but research shows it is there. In this case, it is about the implicit belief that women don’t belong in academia. As a result of this implicit conviction women are not only being judged more critically, but they also hold themselves back when applying for grants, job openings, promotions, and taking up profiling activities. For men in academia this implicit bias is harmful too. After all, people are demonstrably happier, and hence more productive, in a working environment with balanced gender distribution. Moreover, policy measures to clarify procedures and to explicate the rules of the game, as well as training or mentoring activities to help professionals grow and find their way up in organizations not only help women to navigate their careers better but are beneficial to men, too.

You might say this is al fairly abstract, is it really so bad and what can we do about it anyway? In my coaching practice, a lot of the problems I see people struggle with are related to effects of implicit bias. At the symposium last week Curt Rice drove home his message with two striking examples of how implicit bias works in academia. One of these examples shed an interesting light on some doubts I had about pointing to motherhood as the cause of unequal opportunities for early career researchers. According to Curt Rice, it is not  the basic biological and sociological reality of motherhood that disqualifies female researchers for an academic career. It is not the reality of daily life with children, or the so-called “second shift” that begins when a mom comes home after work, that impede her career. It is the fact of being a mom as such, the perception of motherhood in itself that is a disqualifying element in evaluations for grants, opportunities, and promotions for women. In fact, Rice links to research indicating that

“a man with children is 4 times more likely to be promoted to Full Professor than a woman with children.”

“Mothers were judged as significantly less competent and committed than women without children… Mothers were also held to harsher performance and punctuality standards. Mothers were allowed significantly fewer times of being late to work, and they needed a significantly higher score on the management exam than non-mothers before being considered hirable.”

Another example of the effect of implicit bias on gender unbalance in academia lies with the criteria for hiring and promotion. As much as we all complain about the increasing pressure to publish, citation indexes and what not in academia, the weird thing about implicit bias is that women have to have 2,5 times as many publications as their male colleagues to be found equally qualified for a new position or promotion. And no, it does not help if the committee deciding on the new appointment consists of 50% men and 50% women, or even of 100% women: men and women share the same implicit bias. Small wonder women in science don’t want to work at universities.

For years now individuals such as Curt Rice, organizations such as the LNVH, and universities such as the Radboud University have tried to influence the academic gender distribution through quotas, training evaluators, showcasing role models, developing mentoring programs, etc. Organizational and cultural change prove difficult.

In my opinion such change starts with individuals deciding to do things differently. My experience is that women hold themselves back because of perfectionism and a desire for security of success, e.g. before applying for a grant or submitting a paper; because they wish to avoid conflict, and because they feel overly responsible for things that are not rewarded in terms of career opportunities and advancements (e.g. teaching, evaluation of bachelor programs, etc.). On a deeper level I notice that they hesitate to change themselves and violate their core values and personal identities in order to fit into the system, if that system will not change fast enough.

In my coaching practice I have seen some spectacular results with individual women who took positive action and found ways to connect deeply with their sense of self-worth. From their authentic self-confidence they discovered their power to keep standing in an unsupportive environment and even thrive in it. Examples include a humanities postdoc who was scared to present her expert thoughts at conferences but found courage and was then offered a position as an assistant professor; and a PhD candidate close to the finish who was on the verge of leaving academia but then consciously decided to accept a position as a postdoc with her supervisor, despite the masculine lab culture.

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