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May 30th, 2012:

Why Women Don’t Want to Work Here

The recent publication of the results of a longitudinal study of PhD students in chemistry in the UK (in PDF form here) has received a lot of attention in the press. The figures look bad, and highlight the enormous gender gap that persists in higher education; by the third year of PhD studies, the percentage of male students who wished to continue on an academic career path dropped from 61% to 59% — but for women, the drop is from 72% to 37%.

Curt Rice writing for the Guardian asks the all-important questions “How can it be this bad? Why are universities such unattractive workplaces?” The possible answers to this are many and varied, of course, but the report shows that many women are deterred by the ‘macho’, competitive and solitary nature of the academic life.

Perhaps we need to take a deeper look at our work environment to understand how we ended up where we are. I’m sure many of you would agree that the academic career path has become harder to navigate. The ‘perpetual postdoc’ problem has increased as permanent lectureships or research posts are thin on the ground, and talented researchers are pushed out of academia as they seek to avoid casualised insecure employment (perhaps because they wish to start a family or buy a home). The long-hours culture also takes its toll and makes our profession less attractive to many. All these pressures have a disproportionate impact on female colleagues.

Instead of addressing these inequalities university managers focus on such things as getting us higher up the university rankings or obtaining ever-larger research grants. In this context, the current hiring practices of universities make a lot more sense: they are driven by a need to make tables of arbitrary numbers go up (in league tables, departmental rankings, and finance reports), and the human cost is invisible or secondary.

At this University the decision to focus on achieving a top 50 world ranking (discussed in my previous blog post) has produced hiring practices directed at snatching up ‘research leaders’, rather than developing our own staff and offering them opportunities to shine.

UCU are pushing for improvements in the working environment at this institution. We have held informative workshops, created a Fixed-Term Contracts Working Group, pushed for  negotiation on the Academic Reward and Recognition project, and sought your input and feedback. But on a broader level, we face challenges extend far beyond the borders of this  institution. We have an academic culture now so focused on short-term goals and externally imposed metrics that it is tearing itself apart. Gender inequalities are just part of the evidence for this; clearly our institution fails to attend to the barriers facing women here. But we are also so pushed to seek grant funding that we give no time to the plight of postdocs on casualised contracts who we fail to develop and who have little hope of advancement or job security.

We need a work environment and culture that develops and nourishes its staff, and supports enthusiasm, intellectual vitality and academic freedom. Instead we often offer a workplace which forces all of its members to give up their lives and families to focus on short-term goals. This promotes gender inequality and produces an exploited academic underclass. We know why women can’t and don’t want to work in these environments. We know it is not good for them or anyone. Isn’t it time we did something about this?

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Eric Silverman (President) and Catherine Pope (Equalities Officer)