Women in academia - Different views of success

The last 12 years has seen a plethora of writings on the experiences of women academics, describing how the challenges and barriers they face differ from their male counterparts. However, even earlier Nadya Aisenberg and Mona Harrington wrote in the 1988 study Women of Academe: Outsiders in the sacred grove about the difficulties women were overcoming to access the 'sacred grove' (academia) in the United States.

Three decades later, the subject is still being written about because structural and cultural issues across the globe have not been fully addressed, frustrations continue to exist and both men and women are speaking up. The issues are complex and fraught with myths, gross generalisations and mixed emotions.

The University of Cambridge commissioned research challenging the notions of success, aiming to address the stereotypes and, most importantly, giving women a heterogeneous voice. Some 196 women were nominated by their peers as 'successful', 126 responded to surveys and 26 were interviewed.

The results from this research were published in the book The Meaning of Success: Insights from women at Cambridge by Jo Bostock, launched last month.

The book offers rich evidence that women are not all the same - their experiences are not the same, the value they bring to the university is not the same and their paths to success are very different.

Four main themes

The book elaborates on the stories of the women of Cambridge around four main themes:
  • • The challenges of working at a top academic institution irrespective of gender: what constitutes excellence, funding, job security and conflicting demands. The gender dynamics were often an additional dimension of complexity in this demanding environment, like challenges outside work and a sense of 'falling short' (imposter syndrome).

  • • What is valued and what matters: awards, promotion and recognition, but not only those. The women valued and thrived on much more, for example: challenging and interesting work that was of excellent quality and had an impact, maintaining happy and healthy work and family lives, managing challenges and change, exercising leadership, and authority and influence as well as being pioneers. Being at the forefront of change, at the intellectual, organisational and institutional levels, was a very significant element.

  • • Framing the gender influences: different women had different perceptions of whether and to what extent gender was relevant to their work lives. Issues like education and upbringing, gender assumptions and stereotypes as well as bias and discrimination were all honestly discussed, busting the myth that these issues no longer exist but also nuancing the debate by showing that these are not only challenges but sometimes opportunities too. These were stories of leveraging expectations, not conforming and reaping the rewards.

  • • Admired qualities and role models: The spectrum was wide around who women perceived as role models: men and women, famous and modest, work and life, in general and for specific tasks. However, some themes emerged as being admired: integrity, relationship focus, inspirational leadership, political savviness, being pioneers, accessible, fallible, an inclusiveness advocate, doing high quality work and being rounded, confident, authentic and resilient.
For the women of Cambridge demonstrating authenticity, integrity and roundedness were key. As you read the book you are struck by the diversity of talent at Cambridge University which is not dissimilar to other academic institutions in the United Kingdom, the Western world and most probably internationally too.

This book provides evidence that today the issues surrounding gender are potentially more varied and more complex than they have ever been and raises the question: How much talent is being wasted around the world in academic institutions and other organisations?

As one senior academic in the book commented: "I am well aware that serious talent is being wasted in Cambridge and elsewhere by systems that have allowed 50% of the talent pool to occupy fewer than 15% of the senior positions."

Broader notions of success need to be embraced within academia to redress this imbalance as well as allow all men and women to contribute to the fullest.

Ripple effect

Is the Cambridge project the start of a ripple effect? Anecdotal evidence says it may well be as other universities start to react and other groups within other universities start to question and highlight issues and women within their own organisation.

I heard one woman say: "I am going to raise funds to carry out a similar project in my university." If that happens, it would be another several hundred-year-old organisation that is shook up - even if just a little.

At Cambridge, the buzz is still there weeks after the book launch. There is a raised awareness at all levels, resources are allocated for change, new programmes and further development and senior academics are recognising the richness of talent in the university.

Personally, I am surprised by how often I am stopped on campus to be told how some issue has resonated with someone. I am awed by how many people have read the book and can recognise one person, me, from among the cases.

Being involved in the book has certainly raised my visibility and allowed me to seek advice and support at levels that were obscure to me before. It has also given me a chance to reflect on what I actually think about issues of gender, myself, my work and what I want.

I fundamentally believe in a broader notion of success and this work reinforced my commitment to recognising the strengths of my team and making sure these are nurtured and developed in line with their ambitions and dreams.

Will a book make all the difference? Of course not. To truly change and offer a place where diversity flourishes universities need to do two things primarily: the first would improve the existing system and the second would revolutionise it:
  • • Review espoused values and criteria of what constitutes quality and success. It is common wisdom among younger academics that research is valued above all else and universities are littered with people who play by the rules, but get overlooked for promotions. Yet most universities have more sophisticated promotion criteria.

    'Service' is one key culprit for this apparent mismatch. Service and good citizenship are explicitly written into the criteria for promotion, but service takes time, time away from writing. Rewarding what is espoused as valued is important to avoid the apparent mismatch between criteria and practice.

  • • New pathways through the academic institutions need to be defined, supported and equally valued. The rise of the academic manager is one such new 'route'.

    Yet there could be many more like the practical researcher whose work is excellent with respect to practice rather than theory, the implementer who translates research for practice through consulting and-or commercialisation, the motivational leader who may be less excellent at the research itself but is superb at motivating the team and leading them to exceptional results, and the creative resource investigator who has visions of research and can leverage resources to deliver it, but may not write as prolifically as other colleagues.
In a world where complexity dominates, it seems ludicrous that everyone is judged and promoted based on the same criteria.

It brings to mind a cartoon that has gone viral on social media depicting a set of animals waiting to be tested with a caption that says something like: "We have a fair system. You will all undergo the same test of climbing that tree." What chance do the elephant and fish have? I hope now, more than they did before.

Initiatives like Athena Swan and EnterpriseWISE help to change individuals and some practices, but system level changes will be needed to truly transform culture and embedded practices.

* Shima Barakat is a research and teaching fellow and director of the EnterpriseWISE and ETECH projects at the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, UK.