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Promoting women at universities

How to promote women in research and avoid common missteps

Promoting women in research institutions and universities could progress faster if the institutions applied established research in their initiatives for diversity. There are three common missteps Michelle Ryan, who studies women leadership and heads an institute devoted to this topic at the Australian National University, writes in scientific journal Nature.

“Good intentions are not enough to bring about change; nor are simple tallies, training programmes or unwarranted rosy views. Change requires sustained investment, appropriate incentives and evidence-backed interventions”, she writes.

In short, three missteps described by her are:

  • An overemphasis on quantity
  • Training for individuals, instead of overhauling systems and cultures
  • Over-optimism

“By now, the vast majority of universities, research institutions and funding bodies have some sort of initiative aimed at gender parity.”

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“Yet the most recent European Commission data show that women make up about half of doctoral graduates and only about one-quarter of senior academics and people in decision-making positions. In North America and Western Europe, only 33% of those employed in research and development are women; this drops to 24% in east Asia and the Pacific area, and to 18.5% in south and west Asia.”


She says that yes, metrics such as the proportion of female professors and grant winners are important.

“But simple tallies erase disparities in quality. Any tracking must capture the experiences and influence that awards and positions bestow. Do those given to women bring the same visibility, recognition and resources as those given to men? The proportion of women achieving authorships and professorships matters less if these are concentrated in sub-optimal, low-influence or temporary roles.”

“The crucial question is, are women getting the same quality of promotions as men?” she writes.

Systems and Culture

The second mistake, according to Ryan, is emphasizing training for individuals, instead of overhauling systems and cultures.

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“Again and again, I see women offered extra coaching to encourage them to take career risks, overcome ‘impostor syndrome’ and boost their skills in leadership and grant writing. But the evidence is clear: it is not women who need fixing, but entrenched systems of inequality.”

“Individually targeted interventions, at best, provide a short-term fix for a few already privileged women, and, at worst, reinforce the assumptions of success and leadership that underlie systemic gender inequality. Indeed, training programmes for women can have perverse effects by becoming yet another unrewarding demand on their time.”


And the third mistake undermines all sorts of efforts: over-optimism, Ryan writes. “Yes, improvements are real and should be celebrated. Still, surveys of representation in boardrooms, films and various professions show that men and women consistently overestimate women’s representation.”


“There are good examples of concrete things that can be done”, she writes –

– Systematic changes that improve the visibility and voice of women, such as prohibiting ‘manels’ (all-male panels), or requiring conference organizers to report proportions of women who are keynote speakers and panel members;

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– Making senior leaders accountable for progress towards gender equality, as the Australian Champions for Change programme does, in which members track factors such as pay, promotions and employment experiences;

– Making research funding contingent on having a transparent and appropriately resourced gender-equality plan in place, as happens in the European Union’s research and innovation strategy. Downgrading such requirements, as Britain announced in 2020 that it would do, exemplifies the sorts of backsliding on women’s progress that is happening all too often now times are tough.

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