Sexism pushes female scholars out of academia

scritto da il 02 Gennaio 2024

The ugly truth is that no matter how gender-balanced the rate at which female and male students obtain a PhD, women at any level of their career and in every field in academia are fleeing research. A bad news not only from a perspective of equal opportunities for all. But also because this loss, specifically, affects the variety and circulation of ideas, resulting in a waste of (often public) money and, ultimately, slows down research.

As argued by the authors of a recent article* published by Nature Reviews Materials (a monthly peer-reviewed scientific journal.), «Higher education and research institutions are critical to the well-being and success of societies, meaning their financial support is strongly in the public interest. At the same time, value-for-money principles demand that such investment delivers. Unfortunately, these principles are currently violated by one of the biggest sources of public funding inefficiency: sexism».

Since the problems are significantly related and generated by sexism and harsh (if not altogether toxic) working environments, offering success stories of those who have struggled but pursued and then thrived to inspire younger generations of researchers can do very little. They are not the norm.

This year, for example, the one to remember is that of Katalin Karikó. The Hungarian-American was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (jointly with Drew Weissman) for the discoveries that developed effective mRNA vaccines. From hitting the bottom lows for a researcher – the lack of funding and recognition that led to her being pushed out of the university – to the new chances in the US, where she moved in the late 80s, leading her to the peak of global recognition announced just months ago.

But because such tales of empowerment and success, unfortunately, are often one of a kind, today, many female scientists follow a path similar to Prof. Karikó’s only to the “leaving the academia” part. Women leave academia, as confirmed by a study on a quarter of a million scholars in the US, because of the widespread gender discrimination and harassment they face.

Not a lack of qualified students

The problem is not the differences in the rate of female students who graduate from university and are awarded a Ph.D. Indeed, studies show we are moving toward more balanced numbers between the genders in most disciplines. But the bottleneck starts early, and the “gender filtering” impacts the number of female researchers and academics just after graduation, deepening further later in their careers. The drop in numbers from graduation to entering academia means a reduced pool of female candidates for tenure roles, fewer published papers, and an (apparent) inferior impact on the research. Yet the reality is that there is no lack of ambition, competence, or recognized capabilities. Is it instead more a question of the quality of the working environment, the level of recognition, and persistent sexism?

In many cases, the persistence of acts of discrimination (gender and toward minorities) makes professionals leave their positions precisely because of the hostile settings they meet from very early in their careers. Women, moreover, consider to and abandon their positions for the lack of acknowledgement of their contributions and because of the biased performance assessments impacting their opportunities. They are often subject to microaggressions, paternalism, and general questioning, if not downplay, of their capabilities. And are at risk of sexual harassment.

Women leaving academia is bad for business

Further, on the career ladder, the situation aggravates somewhat. The working environment for female academics does not improve even if they reach a tenure position and acclaimed success. They may still experience ostracism, more often than their male counterpart, they lack a support network and are subjected to double standards: «They receive less recognition and fewer awards, and those awards granted to them are associated with less money, public attention and career advancement than those of male scholars. Furthermore, behaviour viewed positively by male academic leaders — such as assertiveness — is viewed negatively by female ones. These problems are generally compounded when women’s under-representation is greater, with substantial backlash as women enter arenas in which male dominance is most entrenched.»

The verifiable outcome is that women scholars are prone to leave their professions because of burnout and for being the targets of severe hostility and defamation. When they speak up, they may even experience retaliation.

The current status quo in academia, where discrimination and sexist practices persist, also has a physical, mental and financial cost. Consider what abundant research already demonstrates: diverse teams produce better, more impactful results. However, the painfully slow progress toward more gendered balanced inputs of ideas and contributions to higher levels of education and research is affecting productivity rates. And even the quality of the outputs. i.e. the advancement of sciences. Moreover, losing a scholar means the loss of expertise, competencies and money invested in years of education and research.

Underrepresentation among faculty members

When men leave academia, they are most likely choosing a different path to pursue other offers outside the university. Women, on the other hand, indicate harsh workplace climate, including harassment, feelings of not belonging, and sexism, also within domestic settings, as the most common reasons to leave. No matter the field, besides the mentioned difficulties they face professionally, they indicate parenting burdens and low salaries as other personal/domestic reasons to quit.

It does not come as a surprise that women are underrepresented among faculty members. According to a Colorado Boulder study published in October, in the US, 28% of professors of STEM subjects were women, despite female students receiving 40% of PhDs in those fields in the past 10/15 years.

The path forward toward equality in academia is long, and – presently – it does not seem a challenging ride. It involves a profound change of culture, not only of methods. Therefore, the authors of Nature Reviews Materials’s paper offer advice on what to do. Among others: «Undertaking genuine systemic transformation will require academic stakeholders to commit to transparency and take responsibility for outcomes. Collect and publish gender-disaggregated data pertaining to recruitment, appointment, pay, workload allocation, promotion, discrimination, harassment, misconduct, demotion, dismissal and departure. […] Transparency regarding resource distribution […] to reduce the power of informal networks and give women fairer access to such resources. Additionally, and perhaps critically, rates of hiring, promoting and retaining women need to become key measures of the success. Linked to this, gender balance must be achieved across all levels of decision-making.» And, as much as possible, ask and listen to what women academics need and what they have to say.

* Boivin, N., Täuber, S., Beisiegel, U. et al. Sexism in academia is bad for science and a waste of public funding. Nat Rev Mater (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41578-023-00624-3

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