Leaky Pipelines and Mobility Metrics

I went to fascinating seminar the other week that was organised as part of my University’s programme for International Women’s Day. It was led by Professor Louise Ackers from the Law School, who has been studying race and gender equality issues for nearly twenty years. Ackers has published many articles and reports for international organisations, and has interviewed researchers and academics, male and female, across Europe. Her talk covered various aspects of the ‘leaky pipeline’ in academia, especially in the sciences, and looked at one issue in particular – the requirement to be mobile, that is, the ability to move between institutions and from country to country. Unfortunately, the pressure on academics to demonstrate ‘mobility’ has been growing in recent years because the Research Councils took it up as a metric for allocating grants. In terms of the issues that affect mobility, having a relationship is more of a concern than having kids or caring for relatives. One of the key findings of the research is that many academics think relationships have a bigger impact on mobility and career decisions than children do, and that the response to this gender-specific difficulty ought to be a reconsideration of the mobility metric.

First off, the ‘leaky pipeline’ refers to the declining numbers of women in academia the further up the career ladder you look. At the Undergrad and PhD levels in the Biosciences women significantly outnumber men, by as much as two-to-one in some Universities. At the transition from PhD to Post-doc however, fewer women than men express an interest in an academic science career, and over the course of the post-doc years the number of women staying in academia drops steadily. The end result is a senior academic body that is predominantly male; In the UK for example, just 20% of Professors are women and that statistic hides situations where women are almost entirely absent, such as in Mathematics where 94% of Professors are men!

Obviously, this is an issue, and it doesn’t take much searching on the Guardian UK website to find any number of articles decrying the situation and asking, “But whyyy?”

Problem is, the discussion usually gets simplified to “it’s their fault for having children and taking career breaks”. So, institutions and charitable bodies have focused on ways to support women returning to work. Great. That entirely misses the hiring practices, grant-awarding procedures, 60 hour+ working weeks, short-term contracts and the excessive focus on the publication record that combine to create a culture that discriminates against women, and leads to the drops-off rates so strong they got their own name.

The mobility issue ties in here because of its role in the hiring practices and grant-awarding procedures. Funding bodies and hiring boards believe that mobility between institutions improves the flow of information and the exchange of ideas, these things being key to a healthy knowledge economy. However, in practice what this means is that they are looking for people who have been able to move from one institution to another, and ideally, one country to another. As you can imagine, this degree of mobility becomes difficult to achieve as a woman when you have a partner in tow. Once again, this issue has its own name: the Two-Body Problem. There are ways to accommodate it and many couples do so successfully but it is difficult and the statistics show that it is more difficult for the woman than it ought to be.

How do we choose?

Couples can manage their two-body problem through having a long-distance relationship (often not feasible/desirable long-term) or by living somewhere “near” to several academic centres that allows both of them to commute (termed an ‘escalator region’, again not desirable long-term if they don’t like long commutes). If they’re really lucky, they might even be able to find jobs at the same institution at the same time. BUT! What if one person wants to move to a different country, or even continent? How will they cope with living that far apart? Will one person give up their job to follow the amazing opportunity the other has? Will that person giving up their job be able to find something else as good as they had before? How will it affect their incomes? If both have great career-progressing opportunities in different locations, how will they choose whose career they prioritise?

In these cases, unless the couple makes a conscious decision to prioritise the woman’s career, what usually happens is that the man’s career slowly sneaks to the fore. Lifetimes of social conditioning and subconscious beliefs weigh in to make it seem like it makes more sense to prioritise his job opportunity over hers. It’s not like teh eeevil man has told the woman she cannot POSSIBLY go work for AMAZING organisation in PLACE because his work is so much more important (if it were, that would be abuse). The cumulative effect at the population level* is that women end up stuck in lower-paying, less prestigious jobs, usually whilst doing the second job of managing the home.

The research conducted by Ackers and others revealed that “the ability to respond to the expectation of mobility is gendered” and that the “gendered quality of the social fabric” means that the mobility requirement creates specific challenges for women. Given that the research shows that career progression for women is negatively affected when a high level of mobility is demanded, and that this demand is systemic, having been created cultural expectations and funding practises of the Research Councils, what actual solutions are there?

The UK response to the challenge of balancing the expectation of mobility in hiring practices with equality measures was to say that:

“Where it has not been possible for a researcher to gain any mobility experience, for example, due to a disability-related reason, or experience has been limited due to pregnancy, maternity leave and subsequent child care responsibilities, it should not prejudice the application.”

Which sounds positive, except note that they said ‘should not’ rather than ‘must not’, and they did not introduce any specific requirement for how this should be prevented, recorded, managed or off-set i.e. no specific measurable objective changes were instigated.

Ackers proposed that the focus should be shifted from the ‘free movement of people’ to the ‘free movement of knowledge’. One opinion among researchers is that some of the best links between people that lead to the transfer of ideas happen at international conferences or through short-term visits (three months or less) to other research groups, and therefore that Universities ought to provide adequate support to facilitate these and related activities. They could ring-fence pots of money to fund travel opportunities for late-stage researchers who have not reached the lofty heights of tenured lectureship, and extend them to cover any additional child-care costs caused by one partner being away for a time. The most important and most difficult thing to do however is to come up with alternative metrics that properly reflect the characteristics/abilities that ‘mobility’ is being used as a proxy for so that they can be more accurately assessed in potential job candidates. This task falls squarely on the Universities, Research Facilities and Research Councils but without pressure from the academics themselves it is not one that they are likely to take up willingly. We must look up from our benches and desks and see the issues that face us as ones that arise from problems at the systemic level, rather than a series of unfortunate events that are specific only to us as individuals, and we must keep talking about it to those in a position to do something.

*Note, I said population level. What usually happens here is that people jump in saying, “oh, but so-and-so manages it”. Yes, so-and-so probably does, however you are most likely suffering from confirmation bias, selecting the positive examples you can think of whilst not seeing the negative examples. That is why we have statistics!


7 thoughts on “Leaky Pipelines and Mobility Metrics

  1. Oh, I’m sharing this around! Nessie, I am so excited that you’ve started blogging, and I think it’s absolutely great. Your posts are fantastic, and I’m really impressed and excited! Beautiful clarification of the two-body problem – and I love how you include “looking-forward” plans/strategies. Argh! Just much love.

  2. I find this whole expectation of mobility really curious because that’s not something I see happening here very much.

    Granted, as someone who doesn’t even yet have her Bachelor’s degree I’m not yet very involved in the higher workings of our universities’ structures; but I at least know for sure that for example my mentor never once left the uni I study at (he himself went there) and one of my professors who is the most important man when it comes to Medieval German Studies and also the new head of the German Research Foundation (DFG, the institution deciding which German universities get funding and how much and for what) has also been away from here only once. The only reason I ever hear both female and male fellows and professors (who are actually pretty much 50-50 in my faculty, it’s kinda fascinating) give for why they went to other universities is either because they were asked to come there and accepted, because their mentor went there and they went with them or because they asked to go somewhere else and were accepted.
    So while I feel it’s always “cool” to have been in many places and it looks good in your CV it’s not necessarily a hindrance to getting a higher position if you weren’t very mobile.

    But of course I can only speak for my little department and for what the teachers there told us and not for the whole university or all German universities, so it’s entirely possible someone in another faculty experienced something similar to what you describe here.

    Still, just thinking about what you wrote here makes me…angry. Really. I don’t want that. I sometimes feel like a child stomping her feet and chanting “NonononoNO I DON’T WANT THAT I WANT IT TO BE DIFFERENTLY!” Sorry I’m so bad at articulating but really, smash all of that.

    • I’m glad to hear that mobility isn’t expected everywhere, nor for every subject. And I am so happy your department has a 50:50 M:F split – it shows it *can* be done.

      Alas, certainly in the biological sciences, mobility IS a big issue. I was told by the post-docs supervising my Undergrad honours project that I should definitely go elsewhere because it looks bad on your CV if you’ve stayed at the same Institution for more than a couple of years.

      It’s different for scientists in different countries, and in Spain for example, due to concerns about corruption, it’s very hard to get funding so many Spanish scientists have to go to another country. The example Prof Ackers gave about Austria was heartbreaking – birthrates amongst female researchers are significantly lower (at ~19%) than for equivalent women in other professions because the cultural attitudes mean women HAVE to choose between their career and children. So yes, I WANT IT TO BE DIFFERENT TOO!!!

    • Myrin, can you possibly confirm something that I heard from a German friend/colleague? My lovely friend stated that when she was entering her undergraduate studies, she was not really offered a choice of German universities – she was told where to go based on her scores, or something? If she'd wanted to stay in her native Bavaria, she would have been able to ask for a position there, but as she wanted to get some space from her mother, she particularly requested to be sent farther away. She got lucky, since the university she was sent to was pretty good in her field of study.

      Did you get to pick your (lovely-sounding) university? Or was it picked for you? Or were you perhaps able to influence the decision? I love my friend dearly but am not convinced that this is how it works.

      • ❤ right back to you

        Okay, this is interesting because I've never heard of something like this before.
        I personally only had to go to my uni and, well, enrol there (had to fill out some stuff online, print that, go to uni personally, stand in a loooong line and wait some time, an employee confirmed my data and looked at my Abitur certificate, I signed and well, then I was matriculated); it was that easy because you don't need an entrance exam for German (as you for example do for History), but even for those who need one it's basically the same + passing the entrance exam and that's it.
        I didn't have to write any sort of application (I've heard some people need to do that but afaik that's mostly when you want to go to a "special" uni, like one focussing on Art, because they're smaller and more careful whom they allow to study there) but if you have to do that for your intended subject the school can only reject you (of course) but not tell you that you have somewhere else to go, even less where you have to go.

        Now back to your friend and her curious case. Firstly I’d have to know what exactly her field is – I could maybe perhaps imagine something like this happening when it comes to Medicine, however, if she’s from Bavaria (as am I, and my uni is here too: it’s the LMU München = the university of Munich), well, actually not. Bavaria is known to have the most demanding and difficult school system (which is actually true, although with the change in systems a few years back I highly doubt it’ll be for much longer) and thus people who made their Abitur here can go anywhere whereas it might be that in some case and certain subjects pupils from somewhere else in Germany, particularly those Bundesländer who are known to go pretty easy on their students, are not encouraged to come here because it would be too hard for them. But they’re not forbidden or something and since practically every subject at uni in the beginning starts from scratch anyway it shouldn’t make that much of a difference.

        I was mentioning Medicine because that is the only subject that still has an NC (numerus clausus), meaning you must have a certain average mark to be able to start studying right away. If you don’t have that mark you have to wait until you can move up which is usually a few years and results in first-semester-medicin students being either 19/20 (those who started right away) or 26/27 (those who had to wait) of age. A good friend of mine didn’t quite reach the average mark (it’s 1,3 or something and she had 1,5) but was still chosen in the third round of choosing – they use three rounds solely based on the average mark but many who are chosen in the first round decide they don’t want to do it and drop out, leaving space for others whose grades are not as good.
        But even if that were the case for your friend, again, it could only be that someone from Not-Bavaria was denied to come to Bavaria, but not the other way around.

        Now since you say it’s a colleague I assume your friend is in the Biology/Chemistry field? I have two friends from school who study biology, too, and while they had to take an entrance exam I haven’t heard of any other method that involves sending someone somewhere they don’t want to go. Also, your grades aren’t actually important for biology at all (as I said, they only still count when it comes to Medicine, everything else – nope) so I can’t really imagine what your friend might have had to do.

        I’m also wondering who it was who might have picked the unis for her? Certainly not the unis themselves because apparently she wasn’t even matriculated yet so they don’t really have a say in that. The only scenario I can imagine is someone at her school (before uni) suggesting she go to another Bundesland because her grades are so bad she could make it there but not here – but again, if she had been able to stay in Bavaria her grades must have been really good so that doesn’t make sense either.

        This is really curious and I’de love to hear more about it because I have literally never heard from someone who wasn’t able to pick their own university (except for those poor fellows whose parents decide where they have to go because familytradition and reputation and blah; but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case for you friend). I hope I didn’t write too much and you understood it and I’m looking forward to your answer (if you want to, you can also e-mail me). 🙂

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