Why women are driven from academic research

“The number of women studying science and engineering at undergraduate and postgraduate levels has increased markedly in recent decades.” says the webiste Oikos. ” However females have lower retention rates than males in these fields, and perform worse on average than men in terms of promotion and common research metrics. Two key differences between men and women are the larger role that women play in childcare and house work in most families, and the narrower window for female fertility. Here we explore how these two factors affect research output by applying a common ecological model to research performance, incorporating part-time work and the duration of career prior to the onset of part-time work. The model parameterizes the positive feedback between historical research output (i.e. track record) and current output, and the minimum threshold below which research output declines. We use the model to provide insight into how women (and men) can pursue a career in academia while working part-time and devoting substantial time to their family. The model suggests that researchers entering a tenure track (teaching and research) role part-time without an established track record in research will spend longer in the early career phase compared to full-time academics, researchers without teaching commitments, and those who were beyond the early career phase prior to working part-time. The results explain some of the mechanisms behind the observed difference between male and female performance in common metrics and the higher participation of women in teaching-focussed roles. Based on this analysis, we provide strategies for researchers (particularly women) who want to devote substantial time to raising their families while still remaining engaged with their profession. We also identify how university leaders can enable part-time academics to flourish rather than flounder. In particular, we demonstrate that careless application of metrics is likely to further reduce female participation in research, and so reduce the pool of talent available.

‘The opportunities available for women to study and work in non-traditional fields such as engineering, maths and science have greatly increased in recent decades. Female undergraduate enrolments in engineering have increased from 5% in 1983 to a plateau of approximately 15% by 2007, and enrolments in science have now reached 40% women.

‘However women continue to leave the science and engineering fields at a greater rate than men. The exit of women from this sector is primarily due to family responsibilities such as caring for children and/or moving to follow a partner’s job), and dissatisfaction with work culture and career advancement. In academia, these factors are strongly connected; women are more likely to work part-time, and as a group remain at the bottom of the academic hierarchy, with lower salaries, more substantial teaching and service duties and less research productivity than men (Hence there is a need to further investigate the challenges of balancing a career in academia or industry with primary care responsibilities for children, which is still quite a recent phenomenon.

‘The accepted paradigm is full-time work, for which there exists plenty of encouragement. For women who choose to return to work full-time after a year or less of maternity leave, there are many role models for successful careers in industry, research and academia, along with a wealth of published experiences and advice.

‘In contrast there are far fewer sources of career advice available for part-time professional women despite the fact that many women take substantial career interruptions and/or work part-time for up to a decade or more to care for their children.Part-time roles remain uncommon in both industry and academia. For instance, in Australia only 12% of engineers and 16.5% of scientists have part-time positions. Thus women who work part-time do so in a system designed for full-time employees, in the absence of comparable role models, which may explain why career progression problems for part-time engineers are still common.’


For full article and citations, see “The academic jungle: ecosystem modelling reveals why women are driven out of research” by Katherine R. O’Brien and Karen P. Hapgood in Oikos

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