22 November 2010
By Andy Humphrey
A friend of mine who is currently looking for academic positions recently drew my attention to an article on the US website Labspaces, which might shed some light on the ongoing gender disparity in academia. It certainly made bleak reading in an environment where 90% of aspiring academics are never going to make it to a permanent position.
The mystery, so it seems, is all in the letters of recommendation. Michelle Hebl and Randi Martin, of Rice University, analysed 624 references written for candidates for 8 junior academic positions at a U.S. university. Overwhelmingly, the positive qualities of the candidates that were highlighted by the referees conformed to gender stereotypes. Women were described using “communal” adjectives such as “helpful”, “kind”, “nurturing” and “tactful”, and praised for “helping others”, “taking direction well” and “maintaining relationships.” Men, however, were described with “agentic” adjectives such as “confident”, “ambitious”, “independent” and “intellectual”, and praised for “speaking assertively”, “influencing others” and “initiating tasks.” They also noted that referees were more equivocal in their recommendations of female candidates, with phrases like “she MIGHT make an excellent leader” used of women when men were instead praised for existing leadership qualities.
In a second aspect of the study, references were anonymised and gender details removed. The references were then given to a panel of faculty members to give an independent verdict on whether the candidates were worthy of appointment. The candidates selected as most likely to be appointed were those described in agentic, not communal, terms. “We found that being communal is not valued in academia,” said Professor Martin. “The more communal characteristics mentioned, the lower the evaluation of the candidate.”
A large follow-up study with the US National Institutes of Health is now in progress. The study leaders are also considering how the results may impact on the progression of women in other leadership and management roles, beyond academia.
It occurs to me that the situation may be similar in the UK. The number of female senior academics in biological sciences, for instance, is in no way reflective of the gender make-up of research staff, where women predominate. When the odds are already stacked against research staff making it into an academic post, it is alarming to think that there may be factors that disproportionately disadvantage otherwise excellent female candidates.
On a personal level, I can’t help but wonder if the same issues may, perversely, have disadvantaged me. I may be male, but if asked to think of my strengths and weaknesses, most of the strengths that come to mind are communal rather than agentic. I thrive best as a team worker, especially in an interdisciplinary environment; the ideas and inspiration for my research have generally been sparked off other people, rather than things I have dug up entirely on my own effort. Supporting other colleagues and helping the team to function as a team has always been important to me, and I’m only just beginning to realise how little thanks I’ve had for it. Confident? – not really, at least not without some backup. Ambitious? – only to do the work that really enthrals and fascinates me, I’ve never been driven by the career ladder as an end in itself. Independent? – well, you can stick me in a lab and I’ll get the work done, using my own initiative, but I’m far, far happier working with others, and experience has shown me that a happy Andy is a more productive Andy. Intellectual? – OK, I qualify on that front, perhaps, but that’s really the only one of the agentic positives that rings at all true for me.
So maybe this study is more than just a troubling insight into a culture of gender discrimination. Maybe it goes some way to explain why I’m probably doomed to be one of the 90% who will never get an academic post. But the study authors stress repeatedly that the communal qualities, which faculty members seem to rate so poorly, are actually essential for research groups to thrive. It may be that those who prize ambition and aggressiveness most in their staff are actually doing themselves and their universities a disservice.