Inclusive academia (3): Supporting female academics

Third of eight posts on my Irish Academy of Management Distinguished Scholar Interview

In October 2022 I received the happy news that I was elected as the 2022 Irish Academy of Management Distinguished International Scholar. I received a beautiful glass sculpture and was interviewed by the amazing Alma McCarthy on the topic Towards a more inclusive and proactive academia. This post talks about my role in supporting female academics.

Why did I become interested in gender in academia?

My interest in the role of gender in academia has a long history. One of the reasons I moved away from my native country – the Netherlands – in the mid 1990s is that I couldn’t see myself having a successful academic career there. At the time, I could almost count the number of female professors in Business & Economics on one hand. A 2018 special issue of Economisch Statistische Berichten, in which I co-authored an article Gender Bias and Meritocracy: how to make career advancement in Economics more inclusive, showed that although the overall number of female professors increased, the Netherlands is still bungling at the bottom of the European rankings.

Working my way through the ranks in the UK and Australia, my interest in the barriers for female academics only increased. Thus, when I had a chance to work with a colleague at the University of Melbourne – Isabel Metz – whose research focused on gender in management I jumped at the chance. Together we conducted a major longitudinal study of gender [and international] diversity in editorial boards of academic journals, written up in the blogpost Trailblazers of diversity: editors and editorial board diversity. As has happened with so many women, the further I got in my career, the more I became aware of gender bias pervading academia.

CYGNA: 9 years and more than 50 meetings

So, after moving to the UK in 2014, I decided we needed to organise ourselves to provide systematic support for women in academia. Therefore with two junior colleagues - Argyro Avgoustaki and Ling Eleanor Zhang, later joined by Shasha Zhao – I decided to set up a support network for female academics in the London area. The name CYGNA comes from the female version of the Greek word for SWAN (Supporting Women in Academia Network). We started in June 2014 with half a dozen women at a meeting at ESCP (where I worked at the time), gradually expanded the network in the London area and then started to get requests from elsewhere in the UK and internationally.

By now CYGNA has grown to well over 300 members in more than 30 countries. We have a mailing list on which we share resources as well as a membership spreadsheet with information about our research interests, the journals we would like to publish in, and the advice we can offer and would like to receive. We get together 5 or 6 times a year for 2-3 hours, with at least one full day meeting every year.

We celebrated our 50th meeting in December 2022 with a Padlet, asking members to share a few words about what CYGNA meant to them on a Padlet. The word-cloud below is a perfect summary of what CYGNA aims to be: a friendly, kind, inclusive, and supportive community, providing a safe space/place to exchange ideas, share experiences, provide advice, inspire, and learn. We think that's pretty amazing :-).

So what are these meetings about?

In our meetings, we have sessions dealing for instance with career planning & development, looking at topics such as climbing the career ladder and diversity of career paths, under­standing the university context with topics such as the UK Research Excellence Framework, resistance to gender equality, research skills development, with topics such as how to avoid a desk-reject and publishing a literature review paper, and interpersonal skills such as negotiation, coaching, MBTI typologies, well-being, and research supervision.

To support its members during the pandemic, the network has been organizing monthly virtual meetings in the first pandemic year on topics such as female leadership during COVID-19 times, how to keep your job in uncertain times, work-life balance during the pandemic, and MBTI & Stress. This attracted even more international members. Now half of the network is international and international members start joining us even for the full day on-campus meetings.

Is gender bias real?

Now I hear some of you saying: but isn't academia meritocratic? Surely this means that gender bias doesn’t exist? I have even heard female academics who have made it to the top claim this and say "you just have to work a little harder”, implying that a lack of career progression is solely due to individual work ethic.

However, there are decades of research on the persistence of gender bias and whilst you can discard individual studies as not directly applicable to your workplace, the body of evidence doesn’t lie. In a recent internal research project for a Dutch university, I summarised this evidence. There are three key reasons why female academics typically have a much harder time getting to the top of the career ladder than male academics. 

Less opportunity

First, because of a whole host of reasons ranging from early socialisation to lack of mentoring support and career role models, from higher household/caring/parental duties to higher expectations for collegiality and administrative work, and even higher expectations within administrative roles (e.g., higher standards for responsiveness and con­scien­tiousness) and teaching (e.g., pastoral duties towards students), women have less opportunity to reach a certain level of performance in their research, which in most universities still is the main criterion for promotion.

Criteria are tailored towards males

Second, typical criteria for selection and promotion in academia (a monomaniacal focus on publications in top journals rather than a more balanced career outlook) as well as expected attitudes and behaviours (dominance, competition, exclusive focus, stoicism, loud voices, charisma, confidence) are tailored toward males. In addition, women in senior positions who show assertive and self-promoting behaviour may experience backlash for not adhering to the norm of modesty and communal behaviour fitting in with their stereotypical gender role. Men’s emotional labour and care work, by contrast, is praised and stands out as skilful.

Same performance, different outcomes

Third, even when women show the same level of performance as men, they do not receive the same performance outcomes (selection, promotion, rewards). This has been demonstrated time and again, both in experiments with identical CVs in male/female variants, and in the academic context regarding journal acceptances, grant applications, recognition for co-authored papers in tenure decisions, and teaching evaluations (Why are there so few female Economics professors? for an overview of recent research). Interestingly, both men and women make biased choices against women, though to a different extent.

In sum

As a result, I don’t think the CYGNA network, or my support for female academics more generally, will be superfluous soon. Though even if it was I would still be supporting them in their positions as Early Career Researchers as I discuss in the next post How to support Early Career Researchers.

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