What Does it Take to Get to the Top?

Readers of my blog will not need to be reminded that the numbers of women successfully climbing through the ranks to the top of the academic tree are small. The same is true of administrative staff: many women set out, few reach the pinnacles. In other words, just like in so many other parts of the workforce, universities are losing talent. Talent they can’t afford to lose and, one can argue, talent the UK can’t afford to lose either. HE contributes well over £3bn to the UK economy each year and set up one new company per £24 million of research funding during 2010-11. This far exceeds the record of US universities (one new company per £56 million). So, it’s a healthy sector and is generally regarded as punching above its weight. But could it do better?

In a letter published today in the THE, we – collectively from the University of Cambridge, with over 50 signatories to the letter including me – are saying yes, we could and must do better. We need to consider much more broadly what ‘success’ means and move away from focussing so narrowly on easy-to-measure metrics which don’t capture the breadth of what we do and what we need to do. Do h indices and size of grant income sum up the totality of what an academic has to offer to their colleagues? Absolutely not. Yet too often promotion panels fixate on these metrics and ignore the wider picture.  The recent report from the Commons Science and Technology Select Committee highlighted this, remarking

Interestingly, the skills that are normally considered essential to leadership are undervalued in academia.

Too true. So if an individual is perceived as good at teaching or pastoral care and therefore given a lot of it to do, if they invest time and energy into such matters because they feel it matters to them, then they may find they suffer when it comes to career progression. Yet these are matters vital to the health of a department and the development of students. The letter to the THE calls on the entire sector to reflect on whether the way we value success is good either for the sector or for those who choose to fill the less quantifiable but crucial roles. And it won’t have escaped the reader’s notice that these roles are filled disproportionately by women.

This letter has been prompted by a set of interviews we carried out in the university of 126 women identified by their peers as ‘successful’ , drawn from many different parts of the organisation and employed in a range of different jobs (and not simply academic ones, though that’s what I’ll concentrate on here). Many when approached were hesitant. ‘Me, why I don’t regard myself as successful‘ was a not uncommon reaction.  Sifting through the initial responses to tease out the most illuminating narratives, 26 of the women were chosen for in-depth interviews. These, along with an accompanying narrative written largely by Jo Bostock, a consultant who has been working with members of the University’s Senior Gender Equality Network, assisted by the Head of our Equality and Diversity team Sigrid Fisher, will appear in a book ‘The Meaning of Success‘ which has a publication date set to coincide with International Women’s Day next month.

What came across in these intriguing and open interviews, is that what matters to the individual is not necessarily what the system rewards. I was particularly struck by the person who said she didn’t care about the publication of a paper in a high impact factor journal as much as she cared that no one felt trampled on in order to achieve it; or the person who valued empathy and communication over a dictatorial attitude. But neither points are reflected readily in promotion criteria. Cambridge does value the so-called ‘general contribution’, which might include outreach or admissions, as well as teaching. However these are factors which can be hard to evaluate but surely should be thought about when it comes to considering what makes for the good leadership on which any university will rely.

Crudely speaking those who care most about the size of their h index, the size of their grant income, the number of papers in flashy journals and the square meters of space they occupy may be characterised as alpha males (though some of them may be female and many males do not fit that description). They will have striven to achieve these big numbers, seeing it too often as the be-all and end-all. You don’t often hear a woman say – of anything – ‘mine’s bigger’. But if the woman’s isn’t bigger, whatever it might be, she may suffer when she applies for promotion. So, across the sector, we have a process which is systematically likely to disadvantage the typical woman, however smart and valuable she may be. Losing their talent is not good news for the HE sector, particularly since the unfashionable tasks – outreach, teaching and the like are crucial. It won’t be good news for the students who are seeking inspirational and supportive teachers. It certainly isn’t good news for the women. Extrapolating from the data now accruing about board rooms and teams in general and the value of diversity there, losing the women is not likely to be good for innovation either and, so indirectly, the UK economy.

We need to think much harder about our systems. Today’s letter calls for the sector as a whole to engage in this conversation.

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15 Responses to What Does it Take to Get to the Top?

  1. piscator says:

    There are some aspects of this that I at least find a little troubling, in that there is a potential of losing sight of what a physics department (to be specific) exists for. To my mind, a good physics department exists to do world-class research and world-class teaching in physics. So it seems that in a research university (which Cambridge surely is) research success should be front and centre when deciding which people are put forward to the outside world as ‘Professor of X’. Lecturers should lecture, and professors should profess.

    It seems to me there are career paths (particularly in Cambridge/Oxford) that combine academic life with large pastoral roles, for example being a college Senior Tutor or equivalent role. These are important positions, they have significant influence, but I don’t feel that ‘professor’ is an appropriate title here.

    • Piscator
      No one is suggesting grant income etc isn’t important, as is clear from the letter to Times Higher Education, but it needn’t be the be-all and end-all of success. All we are suggesting is broadening criteria not replacing them. And if ALL lecturers do is lecture, your way of looking at things would mean they could never become professors. Surely that would be a disaster for individuals and for the health of the sector.

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    I think that we do need to distinguish lecturing prowess from research prowess; which is not to say that there is only one route to a Chair. From my own experience at Sheffield University back in the late 1960′s, one of the Professors (George Bacon, who is dead now so I can say this without hurting his feelings) was a terrible lecturer. I never appreciated just how good he was as a scientist until I finally sat in a tutorial group with him in my third year; a colleague of mine, who is now a Dstl Fellow did his PhD with him in the area of neutron scattering, which George pioneered in this country and was effusive in his praise of him as someone who could guide a PhD student. George certainly deserved his Chair for his research alone, and secondly for his ability to bring on PhD students, but a more enlightened University would have recognised his weakness in lecturing and re-arranged his workload to give him more tutorial responsibilities and fewer lectures.

  3. Grumpy Cat says:

    Good management in academia will focus people’s strengths to support the whole – AND importantly, will value all contributions. However, I have yet to see this happen. Money, and parameters such as h-index are all that matters. Yet universities are much more than that. Mentoring, lecturing, running laboratories, outreach to the community and teaching all levels of students is so important for the health and well-being of not only the university but also our society. Usually such tasks are devalued as are the people who value these activities and perform them anyway.

    My department (in USA) is again hiring and all they care about is money/h-index to the detriment of our teaching responsibilities. Sadly, when we no longer have students and the university decides to eliminate us, these same people won’t understand why grants and h-indexes alone can’t keep a university solvent.

  4. cromercrox says:

    Crudely speaking those who care most about the size of their h index, the size of their grant income, the number of papers in flashy journals and the square meters of space they occupy may be characterised as alpha males (though some of them may be female and many males do not fit that description)

    Crude indeed. I am a male notoriously lacking in ambition and leadership qualities, quite happy to be in the backroom, and whose one year as a manager of other people was one of the unhappiest of my life. Some of us males have no desire at all to ‘get to the top’ and look on people (or either gender) in ‘suits’ with great suspicion. I see myself as the greyhound who’s worked out that the are I’m supposed to chase is really only a stuffed toy.

  5. Grahame Dowling says:

    For many years now I have heard the claim that women are under represented in top university positions. I have also noted the ‘politically correct’ but vacuous response from many males and equal opportunity committees that “we are concerned about this state of affairs”. However, without some clear evidence that women are actually discriminated in academic promotion tournaments your blog and those of many similar others just sounds like ‘moaning’.
    OK, so what might be ‘good’ evidence? It is certainly not just the number of professors in the system. It has to be more than this. It would be interesting to see the results of an experiment where selection committees were asked to evaluate multiple candidates where all the relevant factors for the position were varied (using an appropriate experimental design) so that the effects of gender could be partially out.
    If you want to change the promotion game that involves citations and grant funding you may well need to change the way that university reputations are rated. Have a look at how organizations such as the Financial Times rank MBA programs and you will see the scope of factors that can be used to create a reputation. When Deans are managed against this type of ranking there is more scope for academics to be formally evaluated across a broader range of inputs and outcomes.
    So please stop moaning and start playing a smarter and more inclusive game.

  6. @cromercrox
    It is almost invariably the case that actions taken to support women support men and women, but just disproportionately the women. There are indeed many men who, like you, have no desire to get to the top. Fine. Find where you are happiest. But there are others (men and women) who may desire to lead, but won’t get there when crude metrics-based criteria dominate. Changes in criteria could mean a broader-range of people being seen as successful, being promoted and taking on leadership roles with new and more diverse skill sets.

    Grahame
    Thank you for telling me I am not smart, and nor are the others who signed the original letter or the others who have written to me expressing support from around the UK. This isn’t moaning, as you put it, but a call for action. Not for my university alone but for the sector (at least in the UK). Grant income and citations will not vanish from criteria but simply other aspects would also be valued too. I wonder if you read the original letter at all before rehearsing the standard line of ‘it’s merely moaning’ (although usually the phrase used is whining when it comes to women)?

    The evidence, through studying letters of reference and judging CVs, shows how women are disadvantaged. As you say, it isn’t merely a case of numbers, but there is plenty of evidence across from many studies. And, politically correct or not, making sure those who don’t meet current criteria progress, is likely to lead to a university with more diverse talents who can think more effectively and innovatively, just as in executive board rooms.

  7. Rogier says:

    @Grahame you mean like this?
    http://m.pnas.org/content/109/41/16474.abstract
    So will you now change your mind or stick to the ‘it’s all a myth’ trope? As you say you support objectivity and good science I assume the former!

  8. CT says:

    In my institution (not a research-intensive university) there is currently work being done around promotion criteria and I believe that the intention is to broaden the criteria. In a recent staff engagement survey it is clear from responses that there is much frustration around ‘routes to promotion’ and a number of staff feel demotivated because they can’t see a way to progress with the current research-focused criteria. However, the university also recently promoted a head of school to Prof based on scholarship and leadership so maybe things are already changing for us. I do hope so.

  9. This 2012 article published in Molecular Biology of the Cell dealing with NIH funding in particular, highlights many of the important issues touched upon in our letter to the THE and in this post here. Do read for a much fuller justification of why what we currently have for evaluating academics (and scientists specifically) is insufficient. Thanks to Gordon Simpson who brought this article to my attention over Twitter.

  10. Perdita Barran says:

    The metric, or set of, that we ought to consider is the output of the mentored students. I have no quantitative evidence tha students mentored by a female (or male nurturing) academic do better than they might have in less understanding circumstances…. BUT I am sure that the best contribution any of us (academics) will make is in what we pass on. Some of that is apparent in h indices but most is hidden in the life acheivement equivalent of an Erdos number (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erd%C5%91s_number). I expect it’s in the wit of social media (linkdin et al.) to report on how well students we have taught, tutored, talked to and inspired are doing and so we ought to report that. It may well provide more considered evidence for promotion criteria.

  11. Andy Morse says:

    I very much liked this post. Not only is real leadership misunderstood in Universities but the Peter Principle prevails. In doing so many, if not most, of the must able leaders do not make it to the top in academia.

  12. Peter Piper says:

    My concern with the deployment of equal access to leadership is that it needs to occur earlier on the female career. Women are disadvantaged because of having a family or even the possibility of having a family. Employers may find it difficult to hire a woman who may shortly have children. The problem in our society needs addressing at a central level: should you employ a postdoc and she has children, then the funding body should provide interim support for the success of the grant. This should also apply at any level, but particularly earlier on in a female scientist’s career.

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