What holds women back in mid-career?

Why do women succeed in higher education – but only to a certain point? Rather than look at senior women who have made it to the top, recent research funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education focused on those at the mid-career stage. Drawing on 30 interviews with academic women, this project explored how they strategise their career development.

What women felt was important in their careers differed from what they felt was valued by their disciplines, departments and institutions.

What motivated many women were traditional academic values such as the love of science, learning and the pursuit of knowledge, alongside other aspects such as good working environments, flexibility, autonomy and making a wider contribution to society.

The ‘indicators of esteem’, or markers of prestige and success in academia, were found to be gendered – following male-dominated patterns and pathways. Activities such as receiving invitations to give keynote speeches, winning medals and prizes and holding editorial positions were seen to be more easily accessed by men. Women found it harder to accrue the types of currency that would advance their reputations.

Gender and prestige

Many women had ambivalent feelings about gaining recognition through prestige: they understood the importance of status and knew the ‘rules of the game’, but were sometimes critical of these rules and reluctant to pursue prestige at the expense of others.

Women regularly mentioned ‘game-playing’ to meet key performance indicators set by the institution, which often did not map onto outcomes related to disciplinary success or fulfilment of job duties – particularly teaching, managing labs and research teams and developing junior staff.

It was clear that a number of women found it frustrating that the types of things that motivated them in their work were the least likely to be the things that receive recognition and reward.

Women sometimes had very ambivalent feelings about prestige and reward, especially if they were able to accrue it while wanting to downplay its importance.

What counts

Institutions often seem to value monetary income above all else. However, when it comes to prestige not all money counts the same. Research-related income was clearly more prestigious than income from students, and working with undergraduates – who may be seen as the most lucrative group – was widely considered the least prestigious form of teaching.

So-called ‘serious academics’ were seen to focus on research and other work that would be recognised as prestigious.

Following other gendered divisions of labour, necessary and under-rewarded labour (childcare and housework in the home, teaching and repetitive lab work or data entry in the university) is done more often by women, ‘freeing up’ others (mostly men) for ‘successful’ and prestigious forms of work. In this way, the prestige economy operates to reward certain forms of labour while ignoring or undervaluing others.

(Self) promotion

However, prestige goes beyond just doing the work – it also matters who knows about it. Women felt the work they undertook did not get the same notice as that done by men.

The research found a gendered approach to self-promotion. Women were more comfortable celebrating collective successes, rather than, as one woman mentioned of a male colleague ‘popping open a bottle of champagne in the common room to announce a Nature publication’. When recognition goes to whoever stands up and shouts the loudest, women seem to lose out.

Neglected mid-career

Many academic women spend the majority of their lives at the mid-career stage. Some mid-career academic women feel ‘stuck’ and undervalued and some are concerned about their futures in academic life if they are not promoted.

This stage is seen as a career-building time, but many felt there was little support or mentoring. With fellowships directed at early career stages and research funds clustered with fewer top stars, it is increasingly difficult to navigate through the mid-career stage.

For many women the mid-career stage coincided with care responsibilities, both raising young families, but also taking care of aging relatives. This can lead to a prolonging of the mid-career stage, and in this ‘make or break’ period, an exit from academia for some.

Moving forward

There are many challenges that women face in advancing their academic careers, particularly negotiating disciplinary prestige, unbalanced workload allocations and managing caring responsibilities. As more women are entering academia and finding mid-career success – but failing to advance to senior positions – there is work to be done.

Women would benefit from recognising and rewarding collective activities and success, not solely individual achievements. In departments, consideration of workload balance among individuals and teams, avoiding the gendered division of activities, would lead to greater equality.

And across all staff, there is a need for developing genuine and collaborative ways for communicating achievements and success, such as departmental newsletters, a culture of sharing news or structured web pages enabling the communication of activities. Prestige accumulates slowly, but making small changes at the key mid-career stage could help women advance that next bit further.

Dr Camille B Kandiko Howson is senior lecturer in higher education and academic head of student engagement at King's College London. The research "Mid-career Academic Women: Strategies, choices and motivation" was funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, led by Dr Camille B Kandiko Howson and Dr Kelly Coate of King’s College London, UK.