The leaking pipe: Women in academia

Sonya Wurster explores why so many women continue to be diverted out of academia as they progress through a university career.

The leaking pipeline refers to the disproportionate number of women who exit the university system as they progress from graduate study to an academic career and then beyond. It was first used by Marcia Barinaga in 1992 to describe the situation in neuroscience, which meant that despite the fact that the field started with large numbers of women, it was leaking like a sieve. Thus, roughly 42 per cent of graduate students were women, but only 38 per cent of women with PhDs went on to postdocs. While women held 36 per cent of non-tenured positions, they held only 18 per cent of tenured positions. It is often assumed that the situation in the humanities is different; after all there is an underlying assumption that the humanities are better than Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects at retaining women. Sadly this is not the case, even in 2017.

Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 8.50.57 PMThese graphs neatly illustrate that the metaphor of the leaking pipeline applies to the disciplines of classics and archaeology in Australia, the UK and Canada. In Australia, women comprise just over 50 per cent of graduate students; however, they hold only 26 per cent of full-time, permanent lecturing positions. The numbers then decline at each subsequent level of promotion: only 20 per cent of associate professorships and professorships are currently held by women. Like the neuroscience results from the 1990s, women are also disproportionality represented in adjunct and casual positions and hold 55 per cent of such temporary positions.

Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 8.56.33 PMThe Canadian figures tell a similar story: 50 per cent of assistant professorship positions are held by women, but this drops to 42 per cent at the associate professor level and then to 33 per cent at the level of professor. Likewise, women hold 63 per cent of temporary academic positions. In the UK, women hold 44 per cent of full time positions in comparison to 61 per cent of part time positions, and they hold 24 per cent of positions at the level of professor.

Screen Shot 2017-02-27 at 8.51.26 PMThere are many possible factors that affect the careers of women and influence their decision to leave academia. Some of these include: the discourse of individualism and meritocracy that ignores the fact that there are broader social and institutional factors that prevent women from employment opportunities; the metrics used for hiring and promotion; motherhood. A recent Australian study, which recruited both men and women and which avoided priming participants by not making gender an explicit focus of the study, showed that participants were less likely to report the impact of gender even though their responses ended up reflecting a gendered pattern. It also showed that women were less likely to indicate an intent to have an academic career.

When given the opportunity to talk about experiences and choices that may affect their future career, many participants of this same study, particularly women, mentioned issues around family and children (both current and potential children). In line with other research, both men and women described time-related difficulties associated with having a family and studying. However, female participants also described a tension in relation to their future employment and many women saw having a family and an academic career as mutually exclusive because child-rearing responsibilities still predominantly fall to them.

Other reasons aside from parenthood affect the careers of women, and childless women as well as women with children are affected by institutional sexism which means that women advance more slowly and earn less money at almost every point of their academic careers. The metrics used for hiring and promotions are flawed. For example, citations and teaching evaluations are used to hire and promote. Yet, in both cases these work against women.

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Hypatia (c. 360–415) was a Greek Neoplatonist philosopher in Roman Egypt who taught philosophy and astronomy at Alexandria. She was murdered by a Christian mob in 415 AD. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In a 2015 study in which more than 1.6 million papers were examined, men were more than 56 per cent more likely than women to cite themselves. The study reviewed four possible mechanisms, which may in some combination contribute to the gender self-citation gap: (1) Men may self-cite more because they evaluate their abilities more positively than women. (2) Men face fewer social sanctions against self-promotion. (3) Men specialise more in academic subfields, and specialisation may encourage more self-citation. (4) Men publish more papers, particularly earlier in their career, and therefore have more work to cite. The first two are related. Women underrate their own abilities even with evidence of equivalent performance. The authors of this study suggested that self-citation is perceived as self-promotion, which women are discouraged from doing because it lessens their likability.

A further contributing factor is that men tend to specialise, which encourages self-citation. Specialisation also promotes more publication, which in turn promotes greater self-citation. More productive scholars are cited more often. The gap between the citation research undertaken by men and women increased after the 1960s and 1970s. The authors suggested two reasons for this: 1) as more women moved into academia, men felt threatened and cited themselves more, and 2) academia became more specialised as women moved in and men tended to specialise more.

The conclusion of the study is that gender discrepancies in self-citation rates have notable consequences for academic careers. This body of evidence ties in with research that shows that when asked to talk about themselves, men have been consistently talk up their skills or talk around the fact that they actually don’t have particular skills.

A further metric used for hiring and promotion is student evaluations. Yet, a 2015 article demonstrated that student evaluations of teaching are biased against women by an amount that is large and statistically significant. When students think an instructor is female, they rate them lower on every aspect of teaching, including those that seem objective such as the timeliness with which instructors return work. They cite studies in which one group of students in an online course were told their instructor was female and another group was told that the same instructor was male. Those students who thought the instructor was male rated their teaching abilities more highly.

All of this research is by way of saying that meritocracy is a fallacy. It fundamentally undermines this belief that the standards for academic employment are neutral and objective. Institutional employment practices and the academic canon attract and privilege those who are similar, causing a leaking pipeline.


Screen Shot 2017-02-28 at 2.15.39 pmSonya Wurster is an honorary fellow at the University of Melbourne. She is passionate about promoting equity and diversity in the discipline of Classics.  Her main areas of research are the literature and culture of the late Roman republic as well as Epicurean philosophy. She is currently writing a book on the works of Philodemus of Gadara, whose works were discovered at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, where they had been carbonised by the first pyroclastic surge of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. The book, Reconstructing Philodemus: The Hellenistic Philosopher in the Late Republic, is due for publication later this year.

Follow Sonya on Twitter @DrSonyaWurster.

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