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Why do relatively few women rise to the top in academia?

Posted in: Career Development and Networking
Why do relatively few women rise to the top in academia?

Fact: The vast majority of professors are male. By the time you reach the top of the ladder, only roughly 20% of professors are female In most European countries and in quite a few countries the figure lingers around a depressing 15%. Biosciences are no exception. The balance is being redressed but only very slowly. Should we do more to restore equilibrium? And if so, what?

The key question is: why does the imbalance exist? Here I’ll examine a few possible reasons and possible solutions…

Is the problem due to lack of interest from females in the biosciences?

If this were the case then more work would be needed at school / college level to encourage females into the biosciences. But there is no problem here: The number of men and women who start their studies is approximately equal… but the percentage of females declines rapidly as we move up the academic career ladder.

So, are women less ambitious than men when it comes to pursuing their career in biosciences?

An often-heard argument for the lack of women in top positions is that women are simply less ambitious. But in societies where traditional attitudes still predict family patterns, can we determine whether a mother spends more time taking care of the kids because she really wants to, or because that is expected of her?

Studies performed in The Netherlands showed that only at the beginning of their careers, women work part-time more often than their male colleagues. You might conclude that this causes a delay that cannot be compensated for, but it doesn’t seem to explain the whole situation, as women who have always worked fulltime also climb the career ladder at a slower pace than men.

But, it turns out that periods of part-time work or gaps due to for example maternity leave are not taken into account when someone’s track record is judged. This will affect women’s reputations more than men’s.

Furthermore, although at higher positions men and women work part-time equally often (in The Netherlands), only care-taking activities of some women result in stereotypic conclusions about the level of ambition of all women, but not men. When asked about how women experience their level of ambition, their answers did not differ from the answers of male colleagues (Brink, M van den, 2011, 2010).

Is there a conscious or sub-conscious male bias in the academic system?

There is some evidence from psychological and other research that suggests the latter may be the case…

  • It has long been known that people tend to have more confidence in people who remind them of themselves, and this human behaviour consolidates gender imbalance. So in male-dominated organisations, men will likely prefer male candidates for a certain position (Brink, M van den, 2011, 2010, Derks et al., 2011).
  • When a job vacancy is posted, everybody has equal access to the information. But professors are often appointed after a procedure that takes place behind the scenes. In a study on recruitment procedures performed in The Netherlands (Brink, M van den, 2011, 2010), it became clear that candidate searches did not extend beyond the networks of those carrying out the search. If it happens that these networks are currently male-dominated, this will “lock in” the current imbalance and impede progress to a more equal distribution of jobs.
  • If women are invited to apply, their generally more nuanced phrasing might be interpreted as insecure or even incompetent. Consistent subconscious under-evaluation of qualities of female candidates has been identified. A study revealed that objective achievements on a track record are interpreted differently when a male or female name is at the top of the resume (Brink, M van den, 2011, 2010).

… So apparently, women have to overcome a plethora of negative gender stereotypes, so they have to work harder than a male colleague to leave the same impression. The result of this is that the existing imbalance is perpetuated. Depressing? Yes, but at least this does start to suggest some answers to the problem.

Queen Bees — Solution or just making the problem worse?

Interestingly enough, a group of successful women confirms some of these stereotypes, by adopting a masculine work identity. They distance themselves from other women by emphasizing that they are different, and that that is why they are successful. This way, negative gender stereotypes remain unchallenged. This has been termed the ‘Queen Bee’ syndrome. Masculine Queen Bees are less likely to become inspiring role models for young women. Instead of supporting their younger colleagues on their way to the academic top, Queen Bees are more critical than their male colleagues about the ambition and dedication of younger female scientists (Derks et al., 2011).

And the solutions?

– A good start to overcome gender stereotypes might be to look at the facts rather than impressions, by judging somebody’s track record based on the time that they actually spent working, rather than on their age.

– Also, specific funding schemes for returning mothers could be useful to allow women to quickly catch up after having had a period of lower productivity, instead of entering a vicious cycle of lower productivity thus less funding thus lower productivity …

– Naturally, employers should provide sufficient facilities for childcare, so that women only stay home if they really want to, not because it is the only option.

– Instituting quotas for the desired number of women in high academic positions. This has yielded good results in certain countries, for example Norway. Although some argue that quotas will lead to forced installations of women who lack the necessary skills, there are plenty of talented women… recruiters might just have to look harder (i.e. beyond their networks) to find them. Quotas could be a good motivation to search a little harder!

– Discouraging Queen Bee behaviour: there is no need to act “masculine”.  A better mix of male and female professional skills and competences is believed to contribute to higher productivity and creativity. Everybody should be able to be themselves in a professional setting, whether feminine or masculine or something in between.

– Since women are generally more nuanced and humble about their competences than men, women should show a little more what they have in store

– Also, women could learn from the more direct approach to career planning that men tend to take.

What are your thoughts/ experiences/ solutions on gender discrimination in academic biosciences?



* Derks B, Ellemers N, van Laar C, de Groot K. 2011. Do sexist organizational cultures create the Queen Bee? British Journal of Social Psychology, 50, 519–535

* Brink, M. van den (2010). Behind the Scenes of Science. Gender practices in the recruitment and selection of professors in the Netherlands. (PhD thesis)

* Brink, M. van den (2011). Hoogleraarbenoemingen in Nederland (m/v). Mythen, feiten en aanbevelingen. Report by Radboud University Nijmegen, The Netherlands (in Dutch).

* Speeches at the ‘Pump your career’-day, a talent day for women in science, organized by The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO)

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  1. Martin on February 13, 2013 at 10:41 am

    @ACRead- Erm- I don’t actually think Nick was praising the comment. I know- we discussed this article in the BitesizeBio office yesterday.
    However, everyone is free to express their views.

    Meanwhile, back in the 21st C…..

  2. SexComb on February 9, 2013 at 6:41 am

    Thank you, I’m flattered, considering it’s still february.

  3. SexComb on February 8, 2013 at 7:40 am

    You simply fail to see a fundamental issue: When my wife goes on one of her nagging marathons, which usually lasts for three or four days straight, I happily do overtime in the lab and work through whole weekends just to get away from the constant hysterical whining. As these days cover approximately one third of the year (I counted) I do tremendous overtime. I think women simply lack this motivation, thus are not so successful in academia.

    • Nick Oswald on February 8, 2013 at 9:56 am

      I am nominating this as a candidate for comment of the year.

    • Vicki Doronina on February 9, 2013 at 10:57 am

      Your equate your cowardice – you escape from the problem rather than deal with it – with motivation?

    • ACRead on February 11, 2013 at 6:37 pm

      A little bit disappointing that the first comment on an article about a lack of females in senior positions is a cheap joke about a negative female stereotype.
      More disappointing that it was received so positively by the “editor ‘n chef” of the website.

      I should add that I love the site, I’ve been visiting for years (and will continue to do so) and recommend it to colleagues constantly.

    • Nick Oswald on February 14, 2013 at 1:08 pm

      I presume(d) that SexComb’s comment was meant to be tongue-in-cheek and thought that it was a homorous riposte. In that regard it was a very funny comment…

      Career progression for women in science is serious issue and certainly needs attention, which is why we have covered it in this article.

      But whatever we are discussing, let’s keep our sense of humor…especially on Bitesize Bio.

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