Hillary Clinton Following on from my earlier post wondering whether women want a successful career in Academia, I’d like to consider if the path to promotion is fair all the way to the top in (or out of) Academia.

The answer to this is I think is complex but a qualified, no. The very fact that there are on average in the UK, less than 10% of women in Professorial grades when there are more than 50% female students  at undergraduate level in the pipeline suggests something isn’t right…

My first thoughts were that it was just as it seems, a pipeline effect. As more women enter the system more women will make it to the top, it will just take time.

However the figures across Europe and certainly in the UK, show that over the period between 2002 and 2010, the situation has barely changed. It might take even more time but probably lots more than we think.

You might wonder why it matters? Surely we can wait and let nature and numbers work their course.

I guess that is one possible solution though the momentum is not on our side.

If you are a women in a research career looking for your first post as a Lecturer or even progression to Senior Lecturer, there may not be enough time for you to be continuously employed and to progress to the most senior positions in the current system. Once continuous employment within the research system is lost, it is much more difficult to get back in or on course.

If the female postdoctoral researcher who is stuck in this system happens to be your daughter, she probably won’t have the same chance of making it to the top as another person’s equally qualified son – and that doesn’t seem fair to me.

Part of the trap is that women are more likely to take a career break to have children. Fact. Yet it takes two for this particular tango in the vast majority of cases. When a couple decide to start a family, it is usually the woman who is expected to put her career on hold.

Intuitively you might think that a mother who is juggling a working career in research with bringing up a family has less time to invest in the career and it’s this lack of time which is the issue. Surprisingly, this isn’t anywhere close to being the whole truth so let me unpeel a few more layers of this onion.

We know that in the majority of heterosexual partnerships, the woman spends more time doing the domestic chores, dealing with family stuff, looking after children than her partner. This simple scenario is actually something that a committed male partner could do something about just as soon as he wanted – though it doesn’t seem to happen in many cases. Maybe this is a potentially touchy issue that more women should discuss with their partners more often!

We also know that a woman who takes a break to have children with the accompanying maternity leave is often moving out of the research field at a really vital time in their career. It’s important that we begin to ask ourselves what can we do to limit damage here. How can we support a female researcher to maintain and sustain the impact of her research contributions during this relatively brief time away from the coal face of research activities? Surely it’s not too difficult to find ways in an age where virtual working is seeing such a boost in ways of contributing while out of the office. I’m not minimising the physical demands of pregnancy, childbirth and even sleep deprivation but it must be possible to plan for time to publish research papers, write grant applications and contribute to ongoing research management and supervision.

I think Sheryl Sandberg did raise a significant point in her book, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” which is well discussed in her TED.com talk “Why we have too few women leaders” – that women often withdraw themselves from the competitive work arena too soon and sometimes before they are actually pregnant. I do understand the fear of committing yourself to a task or activity that you wonder whether you will have the time or energy to see to a successful completion – but how many times is the doubt more debilitating than the absence itself? By holding back from that grant application, not volunteering for that post, are women simply making sure that they return from maternity leave to a period in the doldrums as the momentum has drifted away from their research area. It seems to me that, if the motivation to work is ever going to compete with your desire to raise a wonderful child, it needs to be work that is exciting, inspiring and worth every drop of the blood sweat or tears it will take.

At some level, women as individuals and collectively need to be asking themselves what can they do to make changes in these areas and, if they can engage their male partners, peers and colleagues so much the better.

But maybe the most important point is still to be raised. If women are to be able to have a life, have a family and get to the most senior positions in their working environment, it needs to be a level playing field and it’s not.

One interesting piece of research shows that women pay a price simply because they are mothers. (Getting a Job: Is There a Motherhood Penalty? Correll et al, 2007, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/511799).

When nearly two hundred participants in a research study were shown the CVs of two different fictitious applicants for the same job, whether the applicant was a mother or not, had a significant impact on whether she was offered the post, perceived levels of competence, perceived commitment to the job, perceived productivity and  the absolute level of the starting salary offered.

The simple fact that a potential employer was aware that a woman had children reduced her ability to compete equally in the job market.

Now I know that life is not fair, but it seems to me that this discrimination is one thing we could and should be doing something to change.

It’s tough enough that women even try to stay engaged in the workplace at the highest levels whilst raising a family. Their desire and effort to do this should be evidence enough of the dedication and commitment they bring to the job without us using the same evidence as a tool to demean their contribution. We certainly need to be raising awareness, begin to change attitudes and cultures while physically and practically reducing the obstacles to participation of women at senior levels in science, in research, throughout our workforce.