What Women Think – First thoughts on the Athena Survey of Science, Engineering and Technology 2010

I have been glancing through the results from this year’s ASSET survey.  This is a web-based survey of academics at postdoctoral level and above, both men and women, asking them about their experiences and career progression. The results  make fascinating if rather depressing reading; depressing because all the way through – at this nationally aggregated level – we find there are still significant differences in the perceptions of men and women and almost invariably where this is the case it seems to be the women who feel disadvantaged or at the very least less optimistic. What follows is an entirely personal and somewhat preliminary take on the figures.  I have not attempted either to compare with earlier surveys (the Athena Forum produced a summary report on the two earlier surveys) or with the figures I have seen for my own university, so this is simply a first reaction to the bald percentages given. You should read the full report to get the actual numbers.  I believe there will be a more formal report released early in 2011 by the sponsors of the survey.

There were ~ 4500 respondents at the faculty level (of which just under one third were women) and another ~2500 at the postdoc level (of which 52% were women), so the numbers are large enough to believe that the differences reported really do reflect the current situation in universities. However, of course there will be differences between institutions and between disciplines and these totals mask all these subtleties. Universities will have access to their own figures broken down by department, so locally much more specific issues can be examined, although inevitably without the statistical certainties of large numbers.  I do hope institutions will carry out such local scrutiny, and readers may want to find out whether and where such scrutiny is going on: heads of participating departments should have received their own raw, disaggregated data some time ago.

If we start by considering issues relating to ‘progression and representation’, the first curiosity that stands out is that significantly more men than women seem to be aware of women in science initiatives in their own department, although more women believe they are personally benefitting from such initiatives. A second curiosity, given the general beliefs about ambition, is that amongst academic staff more women than men aspire to be a senior departmental or university manager. Perhaps the men want to stick closer to research, or that the women see this as the only route really to get recognition, but we can’t tell that from the questions posed.

However the bad news for women starts seriously with the questions around appointment and promotion. There are clearly far more women than men who appear to know little or nothing about promotion criteria and the process involved, particularly at the departmental level; women were also more likely to believe that women were actually disadvantaged ‘in respect of promotion and the provision of positive feedback’. Why should this be? Is it because men were significantly more likely to feel supported by their current line managers (in the case of postdocs) or senior colleagues (in the case of academic staff), according to the survey?  Male academic staff turn out to be also more likely to be appraised as a matter of course than women, which will also be relevant to promotion. This is a worrying indicator that things are not as equal as one would like to believe, even on such a process-driven aspect.  Male academic staff also believed their contributions were valued by their department more than women did for each heading in the survey: research, teaching, success in working life, external professional activities and administrative work, with the differences being most significant for research and external activities. This is of course only about perception, but it does imply that women feel undervalued, whether or not that is the message each department is in fact conveying or wanting to convey. For the postdocs, things looked much more even and female postdocs were actually more likely to believe that their successes in working life were valued than men.

Looking at factors contributing to career success, more women than men expressed the view that an absence of role models and an absence of mentoring had been detrimental to their career. These worries might have been anticipated, but it is useful to have the hard numbers backing up the anecdotal evidence. In terms of factors that had been beneficial there was almost universal agreement that hard work was a major factor in career success, but male academic staff were also more likely than women to identify luck as a contributing factor (there was no difference between the genders at the postdoc level) and they were also more likely to feel that their ability to attract PhD students had played a part. Do female academics attract fewer students? We can’t tell from this study, so it is not clear if men attributed success in part to this but the actual ability to attract students was or was not actually different.

And how did the men and women regard their working environment? It is disheartening to see that faculty women were significantly less likely to feel socially integrated (male and female postdocs were equally likely to feel OK about this), or that they had an opportunity to serve on important committees; and two thirds of the women felt the workload was unfairly allocated – as did more than half the men.  These last figures were almost exactly the same for the postdocs.

So, we still have a situation in academia where women feel disadvantaged and the suspicion must be that there is some basis for their belief, as manifest by the inequality in appraisal provision for instance. At the postdoc level the differences are less marked, and that must be a cause for hope.  Nevertheless, this large scale survey demonstrates a continuing imbalance both in the external atmosphere and the internal feelings around professional life in the SET subjects for men and women.  A comprehensive study such as this cannot simply be dismissed as soft, anecdotal moans by whingeing women; this is what it feels like for them at the coalface.

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4 Responses to What Women Think – First thoughts on the Athena Survey of Science, Engineering and Technology 2010

  1. Dear Athene

    Thanks for a very interesting analysis. I haven’t had the opportunity to read the report and your summary definitely sparked my curiosity. As a female post-doc, I did take part in the survey and feel encouraged about the fact that things seem to be more even at post-doc level.

    That made me think that may be the problems still seen and felt at faculty level are reminiscent of older work cultures that we are now starting to change. The fact that numbers, as well as the impressions of female scientists, are still depressing at higher career levels, is possibly more due to the time needed to bring effective change at all career levels than the persistency of unequal opportunities.

    If that is the case, once the current post-doc generation reaches faculty level positions, things will improve and continue to do so. Hopefully, this is the case and coming years will bring real equal opportunities and perspectives.

    Best regards

  2. Paula
    I would love to believe your analysis, and there was a similar comment posted on twitter, but I am afraid I am not so sanguine, possibly because I am of this older generation. The MIT report http://web.mit.edu/fnl/women/women.html from 1999 highlighted the fact that younger women tended to get more disillusioned as they moved up the ladder; I suspect that it hasn’t gone away. I think in part, as a bench scientist what matter is simply your science. As you get more senior many other factors come into play, including how you can put your views across at committees, how you negotiate over issues such as space and salary (particularly in the US, but there will be an element of this in the UK too), and how people perceive you in a very nebulous sort of way. Many of my earlier posts have mentioned some of these issues which are deeply embedded in cultural norms and ‘unconscious bias’ (see eg http://athenedonald.wordpress.com/2010/09/12/committee-etiquette/). They are hard to overcome, and sometimes it all just feels too much and women drop out or, as FSP from the US recently reported http://science-professor.blogspot.com/2010/11/other-end-of-pipeline.html, switch to admin.

    I would love to be proved wrong, love to find out your generation have an equal ride whether male or female, but think more needs to be done to change the working culture before that becomes a reality. Perhaps you should have a look at the draft ms I have put on my site a separate page http://athenedonald.wordpress.com/science-and-gender-%E2%80%93obstacles-and-interventions/ to see some of the issues and evidence in more detail.

  3. Dear Athene

    I have read some of your previous posts and I know may be I was being a bit over-optimistic. But I do feel encouraged that at post-doc level, things seem to be more even.

    I know that there are deeply embedded norms and ‘unconscious bias’ and a lot still needs to be done. I also believe that women at higher career points, instead of being an example for younger generations, can have the opposite effect and even create extra barriers to be overcome.

    I was trying to put the emphasis on the hope that things are improving – even if much slower than we hoped and wanted. But hope alone won’t do much, being active is essential for change to happen.

    Thanks for your always useful comments and analysis, I read your blog with close attention as it gives insights to the challenges still to overcome.

  4. Pingback: The ‘institutional’ discrimination of science « through the looking glass

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