The Perspectives of Women Professors on the Professoriate: A Missing Piece in the Narrative on Gender Equality in the University †
1. The Historiography of Women’s Access to the University Sphere
2. Gender Inequality in Higher Education: The Irish Context
Striking gender inequalities persist when it comes to career advancement and participation in academic decision-making. In 2013, women made up only 21% of the top-level researchers (grade A), showing very limited progress compared to 2010 (20%). Despite significant progress in their level of education relative to men over the last few decades, women are increasingly under-represented as they move up the stages of an academic career. At grade C level, the difference with men stands at 10 percentage points, while at grade A level it reaches 58 percentage points. This effect is even more pronounced in the field of science and engineering, where women represented only 13% of grade A staff in 2013. A generational effect exists amongst grade A researchers, in that women tend to occupy a higher proportion of positions in the youngest age group (49%) relative to the older age groups (22%). In 2014, the proportion of women among heads of higher education institutions in the EU-28 rose to 20% from 15.5% in the EU-27 in 2010 .
3. The Study
- aims and intentions (each individual can be asked what he or she aims to do in a particular situation);
- strategies that individuals use to achieve their aims;
- the significance that individuals attach to a particular situation;
- the outcomes which participants expect will arise.
- What are your aims as a professor? What reasons do you have for these aims?
- What strategies do you adopt for realizing these aims? What reasons do you have for using these strategies?
- What do you see as the significance of the aims and strategies you have identified? What reasons can you give for them?
- What outcomes do you expect from pursuing your aims and strategies, and for doing so in the light of the significance you attach to them?
4. The Results
Professors hold a perspective on universities that is in accord with those who argue that they are institutions that operate according to male-definitions of merit.
I often feel as if I am working in sales. How many articles have I written, how much funding have I brought in, how many of my research students are international… the endless emails from what is interestingly called the centre of the university asking me to click on links, provide data or updates on this, that and the other.
At the end of the day, you are now measured by the amount of external funding you bring in. Teaching, duty of care to students, contribution to your field in a meaningful way are no longer valued, despite whatever promotion metric is in vogue. This makes a mockery of the core of the work that we do as academics. I also feel that we are constantly being pitted against colleagues…
Women first of all become much more engaged with students. They take on the caring roles much more intuitively. If you are stuck as a Head of Department you are more likely to get a female colleague willing to step in to do a session with students. So, I think as Head of Department you have to make sure you don’t exploit them; inadvertently or otherwise.
In our department over the years it was the women who did most of the unseen administration. Some of the men just didn’t bother. Some of the women clearly did too much of it and undid their own career paths by doing too much.
I feel that female academics often end up doing what I would call the academic housework; all the things that keep the thing moving… that the institution needs to get done. It has to be done. If these things are not done the institution will crash. So we need them done. But what happens is the women volunteer to do it because they see it needs to be done. They do it and they don’t realise that it’s not going to be valued when they come for a promotion, or not as valued as much as some other things that they could have done.
I think the position of the humanities and the importance of funding rather than results is about big men and big science and I think it’s a very strong gender issue, and not just in Ireland.
I think the disciplinary divide is gendered in ways that are tacit and sometimes direct, but I think the experience of being a woman faculty member here is frankly much harder than I ever knew before… The university is a tough place and I think gender is one problem among many. For me the biggest problem is the culture of non-transparency, power is hoarded by some… we are constantly cast in a reactive posture.
I remember being very shocked by the language people used because I was coming from a critical humanist tradition, which is opposed to corporatism, and in fact what I discovered here is that even people who seem connected to that tradition intellectually seemed steeped in corporate modes of thought and corporate ways of doing things.
I think a huge problem has been male academics hiring younger versions of themselves and that can even extend to men in similar familial situations. Very often women applicants present differently in different ways. Their career trajectory is usually very different. It can seem ragged to a certain sort of male perspective and there is that sense that in terms of hiring women, there is, and it can be all the more invidious for being subconscious, a sense that the women don’t fit the role, rather than thinking in terms of how the candidate might change the role in particular ways.
Professors hold a perspective that they made a strategic choice not to engage in senior management roles.
Well I would say that I recognize absolutely that in certain parts of the institutions, both schools and higher education, that there are glass ceilings. I have not experienced them. I have been lucky and so that’s not to say that they don’t exist... I also recognize that I have an ability I think to manage situations in ways that allow me to get the work done without compromising on my own principles and it has stood me well I think… I understand when we are marginalized but sometimes it’s not a gendered issue, sometimes it’s an issue of proximity to control, but I have not felt the opportunities for me have been hugely curtailed by the fact of my gender but I also realize that I am probably atypical in that sphere.
You had all these alpha males and if you read these books on animal behavior you could see them, all the alpha males trying to be stronger than the next alpha male…looking into the future, looking into when there would be a presidential vacancy, setting themselves up against each other… I had no interest in that kind of behavior, and I watched them as men, and I suppose it you are a mother and you have been a teacher in a boys’ school and you are watching boys shaping up to each other, that’s exactly how senior men are. But I had no difficulty with it. I had good interpersonal skills and I would go and speak to them afterwards and I would negotiate positions, but I held my own.
I think because maybe it’s so hard to get there or maybe because they are one of the few and they like it, I really don’t know, but a lot of women I think pull the ladder up after them and superglue it and that’s just not good.
Consistent with a corpus of international research, professors hold a perspective that senior management in universities place little emphasis on one’s caring responsibilities.
The hardest thing I have found is juggling my kids with my work… my own experience is that you simply cannot say you can’t do something because you have to be at your kid’s play or match… it just impacts further down the line. So, I tend to juggle, doing a lot of my work in the evenings and at week-ends. I get a lot of support from my extended family.
Juggling children and a career wasn’t a problem for me and I’m very lucky in that, and I can see it in my colleagues that yes it is. So I don’t think I’m typical for two reasons. One of them being that I always had a very equal relationship with my husband. So maybe unequal in the other direction. He would always have done all of the cooking and all of the shopping, but also he felt as responsible for the children as I did. Also at the time when I became an academic, my children were already grown up… so it wasn’t an issue for me. But it is an issue for others definitely, without a doubt.
What was said at the time was you had to go out and stand in the corridors and talk to people and be seen and be there at five o’clock in the evening when they are going for a drink and talk seriously. I mean the pretention was only wonderful… More women coming in it’s a much easier environment to be in, it’s a much easier environment to say “No, I have to go home now because my daughter is coming back” you can say that now. Twenty years ago you couldn’t say it. You were really frowned upon for saying it.
A senior person…kind of took me aside and said “X” (one of my colleagues who did get promoted) “works very hard, you know.” I asked myself how do you know he works very hard? Well he knew that because X was always here in his office and could always be seen working very hard in there. And a woman who works very hard quite late at night at home, which is what I was doing, and couldn’t be seen… I think that’s actually very important.
I just can’t be there 24/7 as is the expectation. Like many other women, and indeed men, I have caring responsibilities which, to be honest, are my priority and I don’t apologize for that. I don’t think I should be judged on how much time I spend in my office or in the wider university.
Professors hold a perspective concerning the importance of validation, selection and networks of support.
I remember a Professor saying to me in my first year had I ever thought about doing the PhD and I hadn’t and it really was an extraordinary suggestion in my mind at that time. I didn’t come necessarily from a family where people had done this level of advanced graduate work but when she put it in my head, it was a natural next step.
I remember a professor at college saying to me you should do an MA and a PhD. When you haven’t had people before you who have gone that route just how vital it is when somebody makes the intervention to say you have the ability and I think it’s true for male and female students and it’s probably maybe primarily a class issue but it is a gender issue as well I think… young women often need somebody, it could be male or female, to say to them you have the ability to go further’ and it really was transformative.
I needed somebody more senior to say to me ‘you would be good at this’ … I needed somebody senior to actually say ‘you would be good at this’… I think it’s partly socialization but I think it’s also partly a trust that if the person is making that approach to you then they are also open to the sort of person you are… From a gender perspective I think it’s really important because I think that in many cases women may not think it is worth applying or positive to apply.
I don’t think being a woman held me back, but I do think there are different support systems there for men that weren’t there for me. What tended to happen here was that men who were seen to have something were identified fairly early on and were given quite a lot of visibility and quite a lot of support… it wasn’t that there were barriers there, but what wasn’t there was the early recognition, the kind of mentoring, and the promotion… that wasn’t there.
After not being promoted on that occasion, I set up an informal network which ran for a couple of years between myself and a number of other academics where we read each other’s work and encouraged each other towards publication and I did it directly. So, I do believe in initiatives that enable people to support each other.
I also have a concern that it’s really important as women academics that we don’t create a kind of system of patronage that is gender specific ourselves. I think sometimes women can build very tight groups of female doctoral and post-doctoral students around them and I think it’s important that that doesn’t actually replicate or just invert old systems of patronage…
I think a critical distance is important… a distance from the institution and the mission of that institution. Hence, while I am engaged in networks and have had a number of mentors over the years, I have sought these independently from the institution I have worked in and instead looked to my broader professional field for this kind of knowledge and support.
I think people are extremely uncomfortable with women with power. Women with power make people uncomfortable and that’s a gender bias, because that’s a gender norm that we don’t expect. We don’t expect women to have that kind of power. It violates our expectations.
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Harford, J. The Perspectives of Women Professors on the Professoriate: A Missing Piece in the Narrative on Gender Equality in the University. Educ. Sci. 2018, 8, 50. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci8020050
Harford J. The Perspectives of Women Professors on the Professoriate: A Missing Piece in the Narrative on Gender Equality in the University. Education Sciences. 2018; 8(2):50. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci8020050Chicago/Turabian Style
Harford, Judith. 2018. "The Perspectives of Women Professors on the Professoriate: A Missing Piece in the Narrative on Gender Equality in the University" Education Sciences 8, no. 2: 50. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci8020050