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.
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!