Transcending gender barriers in academia. Why male academics outnumber females?

Monday March 3, 2020                        By: Dr. Laila Abdel Aal Alghalban

Via Wikimedia 

What a career! To be an academic is a dream for many people, a sense of achievement that yields recognition and satisfaction, and an opportunity to peruse passion for and contribution to their captivating sciences. Nevertheless, as in many other domains and careers, some subtle sides of the story hold women back and rarely come to light. Most prominent among them is the gender gap in assuming leadership positions. Male academics in senior positions grossly outnumber their female counterparts despite the soaring rise of female population in universities. Sexism in academia almost holds globally, yet handled with varying degrees of openness and transparency. Why is it important to crack gender barriers and unleash the potential of so many talented women leaders in academia?

Stark contradictions

Academia and science had long been a male-dominant zone. It was only 100 years ago that women academics became professors in the UK, cracking the male fortress.

Until very recently, women were barred from participating in the famous Oxford Union debates. The gender gap remained wide until the sixties and seventies of the last century, when things turn upside down and the number of female students and staff keeps soaring. In 2015, statistics show that “among those entering UK universities last year, there were 57, 800 more women than men. It’s a gap that keeps growing and reflects that girls are outperforming boys at school exams.” Scroll through universities, the most remarkable thing worthy of notice is the overwhelming majority of female undergraduates and graduates. In my classes, male students are a rarity; literally a barley-spotted, isolated bunch in a sea of girls. Unfortunately, this starkly contradicts women’s low participation in academic management around the world, even when they have the same and sometimes better qualifications and experience.

The leaky-pipeline phenomenon

A new study, conducted at Cardiff University on a sample of 2270 academics in the UK, shows that women academics lag behind men in reaching top positions as fast as men with the same qualifications, number of published papers, personal circumstances, duties, age, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc., a phenomenon called the leaky pipeline. Discrimination against women in academia takes different forms, most of which are subtle. Officially, all academics are equal; in reality woman are robbed of their rights to equal opportunities in the hiring and selection process for senior positions. Women staff in senior posts are literally a rarity. Why?

The bigger picture of gender barriers

This should be considered within the bigger picture of gender barriers which still take hold of societies worldwide. The Cardiff university team ascribe that to discrimination against women. Things get worse when the gender gap is compounded by ethnicity gap and pay gap. All hold women back. Some men cultivate negative attitudes against female expertise, considering it a threat. Unfortunately, they ruthlessly create an unfriendly, rather aggressive rhetoric, based on faulty reasoning and the entrenched, toxic stereotype that women are less and not enough, to attack women colleagues and curb their chances for featuring in higher ranks and garnering due recognition. It is crossing my mind now the famous incident of the British physicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell who did groundbreaking work in 1974 and was snubbed for the Nobel Prize, which went to her male supervisor at the time. This doesn’t mean that there are not many wonderful men who believe in equality and really contribute to taking women’s empowerment in academia to the next level.

Impeding masculine and institutional culture

Paradoxically, many women academics submit themselves to such rhetoric, stereotypes, as well as masculine and institutional culture. Many of them are deterred from the very idea of nurturing leadership aspirations. They are shackled by social and cultural chains and duties which, sometimes, push academic responsibilities further back on their priority list. Academia supposedly offers the optimal environment for leaching creativity and trusting one’s gut. Unfortunately, some male colleagues show resentment over appointing female toppers as demonstrators, claiming that female staff are busier and more distracted by personal affairs than male counterparts. Women scientists are not generally taken seriously, especially in fields such as physics and space. A female physicist once recounted that the people, at a conference, who did not know her thought that she was a wife and when they found out that she was the physicist, they unbelievingly and sarcastically muttered, then looked for someone else to talk to.

A tight corner

Such an unfriendly environment pushes many females into a tight corner, leaving them torn between starting a family, on the one hand and proceeding work around the clock to find a space and climb the academic ladder, on the other. Back to Cardiff University study, recommendations have highlighted the importance of striking a balance between work and home, and offering effective career progression procedures. It becomes mandatory to narrow the gap and get the number of female leaders to be proportional to overall female population in universities. Diversity of leadership approaches would generate a more inclusive and transparent academic environment, and open a door of hope to younger female staff that they can go out of the pipe and aspire for better leadership prospects in academia.

Women as leaders

Studies show that there are no differences between sexes when they start careers as young people. However, by the age of forty, women develop more effective leading skills. They work more closely at all aspects to get the best results and are eager to get feedback as they work. Women also ask more. More interestingly, women nurture work competence, transparency and accountability, statistically outperform males in taking the initiative, offer work expertise, create better work environment, etc.

It is not a matter of gender

Finally, what it takes to make good leaders proves to have no relationship with the gender issue. It has to do with possessing basic leadership skills such as having a vision, ability to make hard decisions, ability to get the best of the resources available, among other credentials.

Dr Laila Abdel Aal Alghalban is Professor of Linguistics, Faculty of Arts, Kafr Elsheikh University

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