I was recently made aware of a booklet produced by the University – ‘Academic Women Here!’ on being a female academic at the University of St Andrews. Published in November 2017, the booklet aims to facilitate discussions about the career progression of women in academia by featuring a range of voices from the female St Andrews population. Grade 8 academics from across St Andrews (from all but two schools of the University) share their professional as well as personal stories, highlighting their research, career challenges, and factors that they feel have contributed to their success. I found it to be insightful, illuminative, and thought-provoking.
To serve as a point of context, for surely no further justification is needed for publishing such a booklet, the number and percentage of women employed in various academic roles are included in the introduction. The numbers are telling, and so I will relate some of them as they appear in the booklet: The fraction of women that make up the staff body for lecturers, senior lecturers/readers, and professors are 38 per cent, 36 per cent, and 20 per cent respectively.
The fact that only 20 per cent of professors at St Andrews are women is something that the University hopes to change. Given the current demographic of university students, both across the UK and St Andrews, and the changing culture and views on diversity, I not only hope but also expect that these numbers to change – and change soon. In her afterword, Professor Sally Mapstone herself acknowledges that “we have not come far enough” in ensuring that women are well represented at higher levels of academia.
The booklet notes that whilst women are well-represented at lower levels of the teaching body, making up 43 per cent of research-only employees, and 58 per cent of teaching-only employees, they are ill-represented at higher levels. Yet, the cliché metaphor of the ‘leaky pipeline’ used to account for the declining proportion of women in senior levels is both limiting and ignorant. “This pipeline metaphor constrains and impoverishes our understanding of women’s careers,” say the booklet’s editors. It implies both passivity of individuals and homogeneity of careers.
The booklet also emphasises that there is no one way to “climb the academic ladder” and in fact this ladder looks different to each individual. By sharing a plethora of female academic role models who offer stories on their careers, the booklet shares this diversity in experience. It offers well-represented choices and voices for those who are unsure if a career in academia is fitting for them.
When asked what aspects of their careers they have found challenging, some common themes tend to emerge. For example, Imposter syndrome, an inability to internalize personal accomplishments, is mentioned by more than just a few, alongside concerns about childcare, work-life balance, and promotion. They also highlight the need for balances within the workplace, the competitive nature of an academic life, and the difficulty of career transitions. The lack of strong, female role models also comes up, something many women experience in a range of fields, not just academia.
In the booklet, no two entries were the same. “There is no such thing as the archetypal Grade 8 woman, just as there is no single “right way” to have an academic career,” the text reads. Perhaps this is obvious to some, but I found it to be a very empowering message.
With reference to addressing several of these challenges that female academics are facing, Professor Mapstone outlines some of the steps which the University is taking to ensure that more women are present in higher academic positions. These include revisions to promotion schemes, introducing new mentoring programmes for senior women, and the expansion of childcare provision, to name a few.
Generating discussion about the representation of women in academia, and one led by women themselves, is already inspiring and fruitful. “A great way to infuse change into our culture is to encourage women academics to speak for themselves,” says Professor Mapstone.