Redefining “professor” won’t fix the leaky pipeline

The leaky pipeline is a well-described phenomenon in which women selectively fail to progress in their careers. In scientific academia, the outcome is that while women make up >50% undergraduates across science as a whole, they make up <20% professors.

The reasons are many and varied, but three days ago, a group of Cambridge academics proposed a possible solution. The problem, they said, is this:

“Conventional success in academia, for example a promotion from reader to professor, can often seem as if it is framed by quite rigid outcomes – a paper published in a leading journal, or the size and frequency of research grants – at the expense of other skill sets and attributes. Those engaged in teaching, administration and public engagement, to name just three vital activities, can be pushed to the margins when specific, quantifiable outcomes take all….Women value a broader spectrum of work-based competencies that do not flourish easily under the current system.”

And the solution, they ventured, might be this:

“…we think there are opportunities to build into assessment processes – for example, academic promotions – additional factors that reward contribution from a much wider range of personality and achievement types….A broader definition of success within the sector will bring benefits not only to women – and indeed men – working in universities, but also to society as a whole.”

It’s hard to argue with the notion that success can take many different forms. However, a jaundiced reading of the dons’ proposal looks like this: “To become a professor you need to do a lot of research. Women don’t do as much research because they take on other, service roles within the academic community. Therefore we should redefine “professor” to include not just research, but also service roles”.

Now, I am all in favour of fixing the leaky pipeline, but this proposal in its simplest reading seems problematic to me. It seems – to stretch the pipeline analogy to breaking point – a bit like re-defining “pipe” to include the trench in which it sits. The obvious outcome of the proposal, were it to be implemented, is that the title “professor” comes to lose its meaning of “someone who has attained heights of academic excellence” and will start to mean “someone who has achieved a lot in their university job”. How, then, will we signify the heights-of-academic-excellence person? Well, two scenarios present themselves. One is that the community finds a new word. The other is that the old word – “professor” – acquires contextual modifiers, the most obvious being “male professor” (someone who has attained the heights of academic excellence) and “female professor” (someone who has done a lot of community service and is generally a good egg). Those female professors who have excelled in research will go unrecognised. That can’t be good for female science careers.

If women are failing to become professors because they are not meeting research-based criteria (and I would dispute that there is much evidence for this – certainly at UCL we see no differences in male vs female research productivity except at the very very top – the super-profs) then we need to look at why this might be. If it’s the case that (some) women like to mix non-research activities into what they do, then we should definitely find ways to reward that. We could invent a new title that encompasses academic-related but non-research activities, and – more importantly – we should attach a hefty pay increment to the position. Money is money and it doesn’t have gendered connotations, and won’t be devalued if given to women. But the coveted title of professor should continue to mean what it has always meant – research excellence.

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2 Responses to Redefining “professor” won’t fix the leaky pipeline

  1. markgbaxter says:

    Kate, I totally agree. I found it kind of curious that the notion of gendered academic roles was presented so uncritically (that women “value a broader spectrum of work-based competencies” which is management-speak anyway). Do women really place less value in their careers on research excellence, or are they pressured to take on more non-research work? To say nothing of gender biases in journal and grant review processes that would negatively affect the evaluation of research output.

    Certainly many institutions have multiple “tracks” to higher academic ranks based on research, teaching, and service in various combinations, which reward both men and women (and which are often not differentiated based on the kinds of achievements that supported the promotion), but taking as a starting point that a typical woman candidate for Professor naturally will not have as excellent a research portfolio as a typical man candidate will lead to the kind of contextual modification you suggest. It’s a complex problem that needs to be addressed but this seems like a very poor solution.

  2. No, this is a misreading of our letter. Of course the metrics matter and you can’t imagine Cambridge is pushing to say that excellence doesn’t count. But it is the case that not everyone necessarily wants to get grants by hook or by crook and that a glamour publication in which the student’s’ part is minimised or the student is left feeling used may not leave all PIs feeling good about themselves, even if it scores points in promotions. That is the sort of dialogue we are calling for, not saying poor little women won’t get promoted by the usual route so we’d better change it. I’ve expanded on what was necessarily a very brief published letter here and here I hope readers will also look at the book (see which the University is publishing on International Women’s Day in which we explore these issues in much more depth.

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