Focusing on the issue of gender inequality specifically, this encompasses the whole spectrum of society and education, and universities inevitably can only address a small part of the problem. What heads of department can do is to try and lead by example and set the standard – developing a culture that supports and enables women (and others) to progress. This will be much more effective if we act collectively rather than as individuals, however, and this matter is a regular topic for discussion at HCUK meetings.
The problem of short-term contracts
One of the issues that I think shows how things have changed over the years is that many departments now tend only to recruit permanent academic staff with proven experience of running independent research programmes.
I see that around half of our undergraduate chemists are women. But that proportion drops when it comes to PhD students and it drops again for postdoctoral researchers
We now rarely recruit people straight from a postdoctoral position; often we are looking to appoint candidates with independent Fellowships who have spent some years demonstrating that they can carry out the research they've proposed in their application. They will already have convinced a funding body that they are good enough to be awarded a highly competitive Fellowship and then subsequently published papers and written successful grant applications.
While this de-risks the recruitment process for departments (we’re hiring someone with a demonstrable track record), it means that most people are well into their 30s by the time they have secured a permanent position in academia, certainly in those parts of it that I’m most familiar with. When I started out in my own career, over 30 years ago, I had a full-time academic position by the time I was 27, which wasn't unusual. Now, first degrees are longer, PhDs are more often four years rather than three, researchers will spend two to three years in postdoctoral positions (maybe more) and only then perhaps secure a permanent position in a department two or three years into an independent Fellowship. There’ll be exceptions to this, of course, but where this is the case, it is likely to be much more problematic for some people than others and, anecdotally, appears to be disproportionately off-putting for women.
Tackling the long hours culture
Another problem that academia needs to face up to is the long hours culture that we still seem to have. This is not universal and is more of an issue in some areas than others (in my experience) but the attitude that if you're not in the lab for 10 hours a day then you're not going to succeed, is still, I think, prevalent in some parts of our community and may be more keenly felt by postgraduates and postdoctoral researchers at the start of their career. It’s not hard to see how that culture might affect some groups more than others, particularly those with family caring responsibilities who, more often than not, are women. Regardless of its impact on diversity, it simply isn’t healthy that people might feel they have to work those long hours. We must also not ignore the fact that there are increasing levels of stress, anxiety and mental health issues among academic staff (not just students) for all sorts of reasons but in part, perhaps, due to the long hours culture we have created or allowed to develop and go unchecked.
Academia needs to face up to is the long hours culture that we still seem to have. Regardless of its impact on diversity, it simply isn’t healthy
According to some recent news reports I’ve seen, some companies are now taking measures to turn off email servers outside of office hours to try and reduce the extra hours that their staff are working. For academia, it’s not going to be quite as simple as that, I suspect, and flexible working hours are one of the more positive aspects of an academic career, particularly for those with young families; we're also fortunate as academics that often we can work from home and at times that suit us. This flexibility is something that heads of department can, and I’m sure do, support but there’s certainly more we could do and it’s a subtle thing as well.
I remember one Sunday afternoon some years ago when I was working on the last REF submission where I sent e-mails to half a dozen or so staff requesting various things. I had no expectation that they would be read, never mind actioned, until Monday at the earliest, but by the end of the afternoon I’d had a response to every one of them, so I’m as guilty as the next person here but it’s all too easy to fall into these working practices if we’re not careful. There are perfectly legitimate reasons why people might want to work odd hours or long hours sometimes if they choose to: students, postdocs and academic staff. The danger, however, is when the long hours become expected or maybe when people think it’s necessary even when it’s not. I think we can set the tone as a head of department (something I perhaps didn’t do very well!) by allowing staff to work flexibly, within reasonable bounds of course, but trying to ensure they never feel pressured to work long hours.
Tangible and actionable solutions
These are just two examples which I believe may contribute to the so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ in academia. As a head of school, I look at the numbers and see that around half of our undergraduate chemists are women. But that proportion drops when it comes to PhD students and it drops again for postdoctoral researchers and still further beyond that; Bristol is by no means atypical. People come and study chemistry for different reasons and many of those reasons mean they are never going to be practising chemists or academics. They want a chemistry degree because it opens doors to all sorts of other careers, which is great, but I think where the Royal Society of Chemistry can offer support is by helping us to really understand why the numbers of women who stay in academia drop off so dramatically. We have likely all heard anecdotal comments, but if there is a clear message coming across from the undergraduate and PhD student communities about whether they are actively being put off from continuing a career in academia, we need to hear what they say and be able to act on it. I look forward to the upcoming report on women’s progression in academia and hope that it can give us some very tangible and actionable solutions to a longstanding issue in our community.
Correction: This is a corrected version of the piece that appeared in the October issue of Voice magazine. The print version of this article was missing the opening paragraph.