Women in academia: what does it take to reach the top?

Women need to build self-confidence and promote themselves. But is this enough? Or does real change imply breaking down the structures that favour men? Two insiders have their say

More than 50 senior Cambridge academics called on the university last week to change the way it appoints staff because the current system favours men and stops women reaching their potential. In a letter, the academics – who include heads of colleges and departments – said a wider range of contributions such as teaching, administration and outreach work should be valued. The current system puts too much emphasis on prominently published papers or large research grants.

Despite accounting for 45% of the academic workforce, women hold only 20% of professorships in UK universities, and just 15.3% of such posts in Cambridge. We hear from two women in higher education on what's needed to increase the number of women in senior positions in UK universities.

Professor dame Carol Black, principal of Newnham College, University of Cambridge.

Carol Black
Carol Black: 'Women need to learn to take responsibility for their own careers.' Photograph: PR

It is tough out there for women and we all need to learn to take responsibility for our own careers. You can't get a job or promotion if you don't apply for it, so put yourself forward. Women need to build their self-confidence and realise they can do whatever they want. They must not give up when there is a stumbling block.

I have applied for many things that I haven't got, and put myself forward for promotions that went to someone else. At times it would have been easy to give up, but I've learned the importance of being resilient. It is fiercely competitive out there and that is not going to change.

When you do get a promotion or an opportunity to sit on a board, be sure to do it well; be prepared and speak up. It is not about being aggressive, it is about learning to be heard by consistently being a valued contributor.

My career has constantly been about overcoming low expectations of what women could achieve and the contribution they could make. It was quite some time before I realised that is was acceptable to want to be a medical director or lead an organisation.

Cambridge University is trying very hard to address the woeful lack of women in senior roles, but women also have a part to play. They shouldn't walk away when they realise the work that it takes to make it to the top. They should roll their sleeves up and get stuck in. I am not convinced that women can have it all, but it should be about making all options available to them to make a decision about their own lives.

Having a family can impinge on anything you are trying to do and it certainly can be an obstacle to success. But there needs to be an acceptance that you use part of your salary to buy in the help you need to enable you to keep your career going.

Workplaces are still male-orientated at the top and that can mean 8am meetings because the men aren't the ones that need to drop the children off at school. These kinds of things discriminate against women.

It is hard to get your career back on track if you take long career breaks, because the natural time for a promotion can often coincide with the childrearing years. But women also don't promote women. Women need to learn to be kinder to other women in business: all managers and leaders need to learn to be more flexible and open-minded about the candidate who is going to fill that senior post.

Be aware how a choice you make when you return from maternity leave can have an impact on your career. I would advise women not to opt for the less stressful and challenging role for an easy life. You need to stand out from the crowd when you return to the workplace. If you don't, you will fall behind. If you don't put yourself forward for the difficult jobs, then men certainly will. In academia you are only as good as your last paper so it is easy to start on a downwards trajectory – aiming high is vital, otherwise the gap between the achievements (and pay!) of men and women will widen.

Employers also need to realise what an asset women are to the workforce and make sure they actively facilitate their ability to climb up the career ladder. This can be by making sure women are on shortlists or by encouraging men to take their share of parental leave when the plans come into place next year. Women should also look out for opportunities to support and champion other women. We can look to influential men to help us progress and develop but we need to turn to each other too. We can only achieve change together and it needs to start today.

Asiya Islam, equality and diversity at London School of Economics

Asiya Islam
Asiya Islam: 'Despite efforts to self-promote, women hit the ceiling in middle grade positions.' Photograph: PR

Over the few years I have been involved in the field of equality and diversity, I have gained confidence, skills and experience that I believe can take me to the next step on the career ladder. There's nothing, at the moment, that stops me from thinking that I will be able to do that in the foreseeable future. But statistics in higher education tell me a different story – though more women enter university than men and there is almost equal representation of women and men at lower professional levels, only 27.5% of senior managers in higher education and 20.5% of professors in the UK are women. Worse, only 1.1% of senior managers in higher education and 1.4% of professors in the UK are black and minority ethnic women.

So what can I do about ensuring that I am included in that tiny minority of women who manage to make it to the higher echelons? Many would have me believe that I should learn how to promote myself and go on a few of the many training, mentoring and leadership courses on offer to develop the skills and confidence to apply for senior jobs. Except that I really don't have hesitation in applying for senior jobs or promoting myself. And that somehow despite these courses and efforts to self-promote, women hit the ceiling in middle grade positions.

Telling women how to do things better propounds the idea that the reason women are not on the top is because they are not good enough, squarely placing the blame for underrepresentation of women in senior positions in higher education on, guess what, women. To quote writer and feminist Betty Friedan, it's the "problem that has no name".

The letter sent by Cambridge academics is a welcome initiative because, for a change, it's named the evasive problem. The letter blames the restricted male-oriented ways of assessing achievement in academia for failing to accommodate women, hitting the nail on the head by putting the onus on our current white male senior leadership and institutional/structural bias. This includes valuing publications, citations and research grants more than what are traditionally women's activities, such as teaching, administration and outreach work.

The law firm Clifford Chance deserves a mention here for initiatives to alter their current mechanisms to assess achievement, including the introduction of CV-blind policy, to improve recruitment of ethnic minority candidates.

No matter how much women promote themselves and learn confidence through training courses, the only way the current shocking scarcity of women in higher positions can change is through eliminating systemic and structural bias in policies and procedures that favours white men.

Why do you think it's so hard for women in academia to climb the career ladder? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

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Carol Black and Asiya Islam

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