Work-family conflict predicts career path of women academics

Traditional gender norms are the main barrier to women pursuing academic careers, both because they influence what other people think a woman can do or should choose to do, and because women have, in many cases, internalised these gender norms and shared them, according to a study published in the journal Higher Education Research & Development.

The study highlights key implications for higher education (HE) policy regarding female employment participation in Ghana. The researchers note that Ghana, one of Africa’s earliest thriving democracies, has adopted several national policy actions to promote gender equality and narrow the gender disparity gap in relation to workforce participation.

The research was conducted by Desmond Ayentimi, a senior lecturer at the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics, University of Tasmania, in Hobart, Australia, and Hossein Abadi, a management lecturer in the School of Business and Law at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia. Their findings were published online on 17 March 2022 in an article titled ‘Why are women opting out of academic careers in higher education in Ghana? Implication for policy and practice’.

Previous studies emphasised cultural and institutional determinants over women’s own choice of their careers. Ayentimi and Abadi’s article looks at factors that influence women’s careers from a broader societal context.

The article indicates that women account for 22.2% of academic staff in Ghanaian universities. After almost a decade, with an increase in the number of public universities from six in 2009 to nine in 2011 combined with the establishment of several private universities, the representation of female academics remains the same. According to the researchers, this is corroborated by findings in 2021 by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics suggesting that only 23.01% of academic staff in tertiary education institutions in Ghana are women.

Culture and beliefs remain paramount

The researchers focused on participants who had lived experiences and knowledge. Altogether, 43 women academics from public and private universities took part in the study.

According to the findings, the societal culture and system of belief influence or dictate individual behaviour. Several participants in the study did experience that their parents, friends, extended family members and the wider community usually demonstrate some form of opposition towards women who delay getting married and bearing children. This points to societal expectations and pressure regarding marriage and having children early on.

The researchers investigated participants’ attitudes (“action”) towards pursuing a career in academia at the higher education level or not pursuing a career, that is, the power to make career choices. The participants acknowledged that this connecting condition of action to pursue academic careers or not is underpinned by two intervening conditions: facilitators and barriers.

According to the researchers, participants noted that several intervening conditions contributed to their success in overcoming societal pressures and social norms to pursue careers in academia. Participants acknowledged they had to defy family pressure to get married after completing their first degrees, while others were determined to risk the perceived age limit to marriage and the perceived notion of limited marriage prospects for highly educated women.

Institutional policies and practices matter

According to the researchers, “The participants noted that, while they were pursuing their studies, their classmates from the university were happily married with children and that, alone, was quite distressful, but with self-belief and willpower, they were able to pursue academic careers. The evidence from the various participants points to the ability of a person to withstand social norms and societal pressures and demonstrate the willpower to chart an academic career path at the HE level.”

Where barriers are concerned, participants said that institutional policies and practices played a role. However, these barriers were less important than the dispositional barriers largely created by psychological struggles with self-perception and attitudes about oneself in pursuing an academic career at the higher education level, the researchers report.

According to the article, the cultural ideas about the natural disposition of women are not conditioned by only cultural and institutional forces but are a phenomenon established by practical circumstances. In patriarchal cultural orientation, women’s opportunities in academic jobs at the university level have largely been affected by dispositional and situational conditions instigated by societal or social pressures.

“Family demands remain the major source of interference in the academic careers of women. The conflict between career demands and family responsibilities is more intense for women compared to their male counterparts,” the researchers said.

Lack of support a limiting factor

An interesting finding is that the high demand for faculty positions may explain why women would rather teach at a lower level, leaving adequate time to maintain their caregiving responsibilities. The evidence thus reaffirms that work-family conflict is a predictor of the career development of women in academics. Therefore, the researchers argue that the lack of spousal or parental support to develop the skills for a job in academia combined with societal pressures about marriage and children may contribute to women’s decisions to choose careers that require the minimum qualifications.

The researchers identified varied support systems as an important intervening condition that facilitated women’s career development by enabling them to reconcile family responsibilities and academic careers. The evidence points to both parental and spousal support as key social support systems. This facet of social support helps women remain productive and sustains their determination to pursue further studies to meet the minimum requirement for academic careers.

According to the researchers, the participants acknowledge other support systems such as the availability of grants, doctoral fellowships and scholarship opportunities in building their academic careers.

However, few women benefit from such opportunities because many institutions are gender-blind in how grants and scholarship opportunities are managed. They fail to recognise that the under-representation of women in academics is a problem and demands special attention in the distribution of scholarship opportunities.

Attitudes need to change

The researchers recommend that understanding the barriers to women’s careers in HE may need to be re-examined more broadly to appreciate how institutional and cultural barriers interact with women’s choice to forgo or to pursue an academic career.

“From the study, it is clear that there is a great opportunity to alter social structures to improve employment outcomes of women in the HE sector – starting from societal norms, where attitudes and behaviour towards women and gender blindness need to change,” the researchers wrote.

Ayentimi and Abadi said that their article highlights the positive role-modelling (social support) plays to create a supportive ecosystem for women’s advancement.

The researchers recommend that academic institutions be held accountable. The representation of women and gender equity indicators should be a national and institutional priority. Additionally, the researchers advocate for a strategy to ensure that the concerns of women are integrated into the functioning of academic institutions and that women benefit equally.

This is a summarised version of an academic article, which has been edited for length and focus.