Women in academia: a matter of institutional culture?

11 November 2002
Career limiting factors:
Assoc. Prof. Cheryl de la Rey's research highlights impediments to women in research and academia.

THE position of women academics in South Africa mimics a global pattern; the higher the status and reward the lower the number of women. This status quo raises some serious questions, particularly against the backdrop of equity targets and the role of women in higher education, says Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research and Innovation) Associate Professor Cheryl de la Rey.

She was the guest speaker at the recent annual general meeting of South African Women in Science and Engineering (SAWISE).

De la Rey began her research in this field in 1996, trying to uncover the factors that perpetuate and encourage patterns of gender inequity in academia, especially those affecting women pursuing careers in research, where gender disparities are evident in the three key, and often interwoven, areas of staffing, promotion and leadership.

Five main factors governed the lot of women in academia, beginning with a limiting definitions career and career development; women's multiple responsibilities; the changing constructions of academic work; masculinist institutional cultures; and the absence of a supportive network among women.

“The definition of 'career' is pivotal to understanding women's career trajectories. Even the four basic concepts of career (steady-state, linear, spiral and transitory) assume a level of continuity,” she noted. “But due to childbearing, childrearing and other domestic responsibilities most women are unlikely to follow the anticipated pattern of the uninterrupted service that contributes to promotions.”

In her research she found that women professors, for example, have different career trajectories compared with men. “Late beginnings and interruptions to career development were typical. Women's stories are tied to the stories of others, typically husbands and children. In addition, many married women reported fragmented educational and career patterns as a result of their husband's career movements.”

Academia, she said, is a “front-loaded” profession, requiring large investments if time and energy during the early stages. The pressure to increase research output typically coincides with the timing of choices such as whether to have children. This leads to two main patterns of sequencing: either, career and then family, or family and then career.” The decision has a great impact on a woman's life-course,” she continued. All the women she interviewed had reported that childbearing had slowed their careers.

While the latter is common to any career involving women, this scenario has important repercussions for academics in later life. “There are overall group differences. When men and women academics are in their fifties, they tend to be at different places in their careers. Studies reveal that men who have uninterrupted, linear careers have a clear sense of their achievements and are thinking of leaving their mark. For women who have started late, many may have been in academia for only a decade or so by the time they reach their fifties. Making their mark is still an issue. Thus we need to make a distinction between chronological age and professional age.”

This begs the question: should senior women in academia retire later, having had a chance to make their mark in their chosen area of research?

Impediments to women also have important implications for careers in scientific research where the momentum of a career is sustained by growing a reputation. “According to this model, the process of reputation and career building are affected by feedback mechanisms that ensure that past performance brings fresh rewards,” De la Rey remarked. “This promotes further activity, which enhances greater reputation.”

Although reputation is closely linked to research performance, it is also affected by other factors such as seniority and length of service. “In science, data on how women's academic careers lag behind those of men, suggest that women find it more difficult to build personal reputations on the basis of their research achievements. We also know that creating a reputation involves more than publishing papers and then waiting to be rewarded. Reputations are made through cultural constructs; informal networks of colleagues, friends, critics and competitors. There is no necessary link between research productivity and reputational capital.”

Among all the women professors De la Rey interviewed most interpreted research and publication as “difficult areas”. Teaching, however, represented an area of great job satisfaction, hinting at links to the nurturing role of mothers, an expected role for women.

Institutional culture presented a barrier, too, especially with regard to participation in committees, particularly high-level committees. Interviewees saw committee membership as an important factor for promotion as it was linked to visibility, role modelling, decision-making and representation. Yet, nomination to significant committees is difficult and so too, is finding a voice of confidence once in those committees.

Supportive structures among women were also lacking, she said. The individualist competitive institutional culture of universities was named as the factor that mitigated against the development of co-operative relationships among women academics themselves, with loneliness and isolation as the consequences.

As for the future, she commented that “The gender inequalities accompanied by the individualistic structuring of academia may mean that women as a group need to work together” Collective organisation was thus a strategy that has to be explored.

“By working together, as SAWISE strives to do, we have the best chance of succeeding in identifying the obstacles and in lobbying for appropriate changes. What emerged from my research is that any agenda for change needs to be multi-pronged, incorporating a portfolio of inter-related strategies and interventions to achieve substantive change as the issues are clearly complex.”

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