Why do you think there are fewer women at professorial level in academia?

This is the question posed by a former mentor of mine to alumni of our immunology honours degree. The department is applying for the Athena SWAN award which aims to promote the advancement of women in STEMM careers. He is frustrated that, while there are more women than men at undergraduate, PhD and post-doc level, the numbers start to flip when it comes to fellowship and tenure positions.

I thought I’d share my answer:

It’s no secret that, while there’s a bit of teamwork involved in continuing the human race; in most countries (the UK and the US included) maternity and paternity leave are not equally shared, leaving the woman to take a career hit each time, and employers feeling sorry for themselves when said woman isn’t available for work for a while because she’s busy building a human.

This is, of course, not a condition specific to academia and nor is the male top-heavy workplace. A career in academia can be a lonely and competitive pursuit often with little support and no safety net. I’ve heard many PhD students and post-docs talk about always feeling ‘guilty’ – they’re never doing enough hours, never working hard enough, never producing enough data, despite working more hours for less pay than many (most?!) other jobs. Doesn’t leave much time for a family.

In my previous university, one professor was particularly unimpressed with ‘post-docs these days, thinking they can just run off and have babies’. I’ve seen women have to defend themselves against accusations of being pregnant from their PIs. I’ve had discussions with women in their early twenties trying to work out when, between post-docs, they might be able to have children (never did find a solution). I haven’t had any of these conversations with my male colleagues; it just isn’t an issue for them.

I think the thing that makes academia such a particularly difficult place for women is that each person is individually under so much pressure – publish more, bring in more grants, devote your entire life to your job; when the entire time burden of parental leave is on the woman, how can she choose an all-or-nothing career? The current, unfortunate, reality is that having children requires women to make a decision that men never have to – to put a dent in their career – so women are always on the back foot. Add to that the academic career structure which is verging on insane – PhD student, post-doc, post-doc, post-doc, post-doc, um… getting-a-bit-old-for-post-docs-and-haven’t-had-a-pay-rise-in-a-decade-but-there-are-no-tenure-positions… career change / start again?

When you have the option of decades of 3-year contracts and job insecurity in academia vs. a well-paid job elsewhere that you can pick up after having children without having the guilt and the major set-backs, where’s the incentive??

Definitely interested to hear others’ views on this!


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