Women and academic promotion

By | February 13, 2016

As anyone, anywhere, who has ever applied for an academic promotion will tell you, promotion applications are onerous. Evidence is gathered, documents are written, forms are filled, boxes are ticked, support is sought and a hefty wad of material is signed off and dispatched with fingers crossed and a sigh of relief. Then, you wait. And wait. Months, rather than weeks, later a letter with the outcome arrives. Confidence and a firm resolve are required for sure.

There is a popular belief, and research which supports the idea, that women are less confident than men; they are certainly less likely to apply for promotion to senior levels. Yet, I have never had a sense at all that my female colleagues are a bunch of retiring violets – quite the reverse. What I think many women struggle with, I certainly do, is the valuing of certain attributes which go along with promotion at the expense of others which do not. There is a fabulous talk by journalist, Reni Eddo-Lodge who in just 3.5 minutes deconstructs the argument that women should be seeking equality by asking who we are seeking equality with and under what conditions. This is a very different kettle of fish to lacking confidence.

In any event, research also shows  that confident women can fare badly compared to confident men (see for example, Victoria Brescoll’s work on gender and talking and gender and anger). It seems that displaying just the right type and amount of confidence is a wee trick, especially for women.

Arguably, flawed process can also have an impact on promotion chances. A good example, is the issue of feedback. Usually, you can get feedback from promotions committees but you often have to ask for it. There is a real irony here. When tens of thousands of academic research hours and thousands of journal pages are devoted to the necessity of and benefits accruing from good feedback to our students, feedback to staff that would provide insight, assist performance and improve chances of future success is provided only on request… And, just imagine if your application has been unsuccessful: you’ve turned yourself inside out to apply, you get turned down and the last thing you feel like doing is going cap-in-hand to get feedback. There is a clear power imbalance and that may well play out as a reluctance to try again.

More pedestrian issues are the length of time it takes to process applications and the poundage of paperwork. The quantity of material to plough through will hardly focus the minds of any committee and worse, much of this is still handled in hard-copy. We’ve known for decades that human judgement is subject to bias (Tversky and Kahneman, 1974). Standardising criteria, as in the case of promotions, can help reduce this. Nevertheless, when judgement is required to assess whether criteria are met based on evidence supplied, bias will creep back in. And, hunting for evidence in mounds of paper seems unlikely to reduce bias. While any promotion applicant is well advised to clearly address the criteria, institutions moving to online and streamlined systems could also help, not least by making it easier to verify evidence. Many university processes have benefited from going online. For example, research at Otago University has shown that improving the teaching evaluations system may improve teacher engagement with evaluations in addition to reducing processing time (Moskal et al, 2015) . Imagine a similar effect on academic engagement with the promotion process.

If we are serious about improving the gender balance and encouraging diversity in Universities, we need to address process issues and inequities. Better still, let’s address the structural issues while we’re at it and critically examine what we value and reward in higher education (see an earlier post). If what is valued by institutions aligns with what is valued by more women, we might start to see more women applying for promotion and ultimately achieve gender equity across all levels of academia. The same holds for diversity; if we value diversity in our workforce, let our institutional values reflect diverse values.

And the caprine perspective? Clover, Chicory and their respective broods have little patience with structural inequities. They are called fences and are to be jumped over or pushed through and always when you least expect it.

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Chicory contemplates structural inequity

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