Why do female academics give up on becoming professors?

Women are equally represented in academia, but most professors are still men. Flickr/Herkie

Australian higher education is often seen as a female-friendly industry, with overall numbers of both female students and academic staff outnumbering men. Yet women remain a minority as senior academics.

In 2009 only a quarter of appointments to positions above the level of associate professor went to women.

So what happens to all those women toiling away as tutors and lecturers and researchers when it comes time to move up? Do they simply lose interest or does something else get in the way?

Discrimination or choice?

In fact, there are many reasons women in leadership remain a minority. One is the use of external recruitment processes that heavily favour men.

Another is hidden by systematic “gender inequality practices” that operate to cancel out the effect of efforts to foster gender equity.

An alternative explanation, and one that has been influential, comes from human capital theory. It explains women’s under-representation as an outcome of “choice”. That is, women choose not to pursue senior academic positions in preference to balancing work and other responsibilities, particularly caring for children and families.

My own case study of one Australian university involved exploring women’s aspirations for promotion via in-depth interviews with women appointed at Level C (two levels below being a Professor) from across disciplines, cultural backgrounds and age groups.

There’s not much to be optimistic about if you’re looking for higher numbers of women in senior academic ranks in the future. Within the case study, only one interviewee had the aspiration of being appointed to the highest level, Level E with the title of Professor confidently in her sights.

There was also a large minority who aspired to reaching the second highest level, Level D with the title of Associate Professor although most were cautious about their prospects of achieving this.

The majority, however, considered promotion to be highly unlikely, untenable or undesirable because of a range of circumstances.

Low aspirations

First it’s worth noting that women at Level C are highly invested in their careers in order to have been appointed in the first instance. Such a position requires, at best, a good ten years of study and experience – longer if there are other distractions such as having children.

Despite this investment, many women don’t aspire to reach the next level.

Factors that encourage women to seek promotion are related to personal, disciplinary and organisational conditions. Those that were the most enthused about seeking promotion have had the sustained weight of conditions in their favour.

A major factor was becoming eligible to seek promotion at a relatively early career stage. This meant starting early on a particular disciplinary path, in a field with expanding career opportunities, completing a PhD and accumulating teaching experience and a research track record in a tenured academic position before retirement was starting to be a realistic option.

Another factor was having had the benefit of a trusted mentor or critical colleague to help negotiate the ever changing academic “game” and support in the development of influential professional networks.

Working in a collegiate organisational unit also helped in surviving continuous higher education reform with an ever-increasing administration, research and teaching load.

A key factor was relative freedom from, or support for, care responsibilities and that their immediate family remained well over the course of their careers. One critical blow to career aspirations was the illness of a child, spouse or parent that just could not be managed along with a more senior academic role.

Women held back

It remains the case that the chances of sustaining these conditions over the fifteen or more years it takes to reach Level D are weighed in men’s favour.

The list of conditions that slow women down in their careers, in ways that men aren’t, remains long. Unequal responsibility for child/family care and interrupted careers to have children is one factor.

Women’s concentration in a narrow range of less prestigious and well-resourced disciplines is another.

These and many other conditions combine to slow down women in developing the kind of academic capital, confidence and aspiration necessary to apply for promotion.

What next?

While each individual has varied freedoms, opportunities and circumstances, women generally are positioned in academe in ways that men often aren’t. As a result, these, and myriad other circumstances shape the possibility of whether or not it is feasible or desirable to seek promotion.

For many women in academe, by the time they are qualified and experienced enough to be eligible for promotion, there is no choice.

If gender equity in the professoriate is the goal, more direct affirmative action measures are needed.