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Human resources

Women’s odds in academia

Research suggests that having a higher ratio of women in a field does not guarantee female scholars an edge in reaching the top career level

040-043_P_Gênero_238Research findings published in the journal Dados suggest that gender inequality has a more complex effect on academic careers in Brazil than scholarship on the topic usually takes into account. The article, which was written by the sociologist Marília Moschkovich and her advisor, Professor Ana Maria Fonseca de Almeida, of the School of Education at the University of Campinas (Unicamp), analyzed data on the careers of male and female professors at Unicamp – and came to some surprising conclusions. One finding was that even when women constitute the majority in a field, this does not necessarily help them climb to the top. The study analyzed the chances of men and women faculty members reaching Unicamp’s highest career level at each of the university’s 27 divisions. It found that female professors are less likely than male professors to advance to the top in the programs of linguistics, education, and medicine, where most faculty members are women. Conversely, women professors have greater chances of reaching the top in the programs of mechanical engineering and agriculture, where, paradoxically, they constitute the clear minority.

“Patterns of inequality differed among the disciplines, suggesting that other factors may also influence faculty careers according to gender,” says Moschkovich. Focusing on data from three other public universities (yet to be defined), the next phase of research will look for any field-specific influence on career paths by comparing other facets of academic careers, such as publication patterns and relations between each field and the non-academic labor market. “An academic career may not play the same ‘role’ on the general labor market in each area. Some research has documented how various obstacles are placed before women on the non-academic labor market for engineers, where salaries are higher than in academic engineering, for example. It may be that women who excel in some branches of engineering as undergraduates head into academia, while men who also excel head into the corporate world, which is more open to them. This might nourish a certain ‘climate’ in the academic work environment, at least in thesis. However, this first phase of research confirmed that an academic career is not necessarily less competitive or friendlier for women,” says Almeida, who is also assistant coordinator of Social and Human Sciences at the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP). “Since this has been observed in some fields but not others, more thorough, focused research is needed.”

The effect of a researcher’s social background on the pace of career progress will likewise be studied. According to the authors, it is reasonable to assume that a professor who comes from an environment close to a university setting – who is a child of professors, for instance – will be more familiar with the rules of academe and able to gain peer recognition faster than someone with little experience in the academic world, who might take a bit longer to understand how to stake out a place and quickly ascend the career ladder. “The ability to manage a career can be acquired during graduate studies or even earlier, during undergraduate years, but the codes needed to understand career demands are not always accessible to everyone, and this can influence upward career mobility,” says Almeida. The researchers plan to monitor young men and women professors to assess the challenges they face at the outset of their careers and ascertain whether their situation has changed as compared to older professors. “The goal is to understand what men and women must do to fit in and earn respect,” says Moschkovich.

The pursuit of gender equality in academia is relevant not only from the perspective of civil rights; it is also important for energizing the university environment. “Ensuring that researchers and faculty with different backgrounds and experience have access helps each field diversify its research issues and subjects and its approaches and work methods,” says Almeida. In Brazil, most new doctorates go to women (51.5%), and most faculty at institutions of higher education are women as well (55%), according to 2008 data from the National Institute for Educational Studies and Research (Inep). The ratio is lower at Brazil’s public colleges, where women account for 45% of faculty. At Unicamp, they represent 35%.

“Some people say these differences are just the way things are – that they reflect the fact that women have only more recently taken up careers in academia and that the situation is changing for younger generations, but the truth is that this is not just a generational problem,” says Elizabeth Balbachevsky, a professor at the School of Philosophy, Literature and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (USP) who researches the topic of academic careers. “Women face major obstacles in finding a place in academia and climbing the career ladder, and evidence suggests that these obstacles are growing as the career becomes more competitive,” she states.

The authors chose the universe of faculty members at Unicamp because they believe that this cross-section – that of a Brazilian public university – may contribute to the international debate on the relation between gender and scientific career. In this particular context, it is possible to control for variables that lie at the heart of the discussion concerning policies to foster equality at universities in other countries. In the United States, for example, there is a debate about extending women’s probationary period. This refers to the phase during which researchers devote themselves intensely to their work. When the period ends, they are evaluated and possibly granted tenure. The argument is that women professors are jeopardized compared to male because they are in their reproductive years and responsible for childcare. At public colleges in Brazil, the impact of job stability can be controlled for female professors, because women, like men, are tenured as soon as they pass their qualifying exam.

In other places, like European countries and Australia, the discussion revolves around how to guarantee equal wages for men and women in a climate where female researchers have trouble negotiating promotions and salaries as efficaciously as men, putting them at a disadvantage. At Brazil’s public universities, the situation can be analyzed in an environment where this variable carries practically no weight, because by law, men and women occupying equivalent posts receive the same salary. Furthermore, identical rules apply across the board when it comes to promotions, which are defined by collegiate bodies comprising faculty members themselves. Finally, the authors point out, because of Brazil’s economic inequality, female professors can rely on maids to help with the tasks that are socially assigned to women, such as childcare and housework, which is not such a routine option in developed nations. “At least hypothetically, [in Brazil] this career may be more favorable to overriding the female disadvantage noted in other contexts,” says Moschkovich.

The study addressed three specific questions. First, it assessed how likely it was for professors of each gender to reach both the highest career rung as well as management posts at Unicamp. Second, it verified how quickly faculty members of each gender arrived at the top. Third, it analyzed whether the likelihood and speed of career advancement varied in accordance with the proportion of women at each school or institute, since women constitute the overwhelming majority in fields like dance or language and literature, while in others, like electrical engineering, they represent barely 10% of faculty (see table).

The main finding was that women suffer a disadvantage. Women account for a smaller proportion than men at all three career levels, but men have the biggest edge at the top, where 73.8% are male and 26.2% female. As to the chances of reaching an administrative post, men are ahead at the graduate level as unit directors or coordinators, while women are likelier to become undergraduate coordinators. No woman has ever served as president of Unicamp. “This illustrates how much harder it is for women professors to hold positions that wield greater power within the university,” says Almeida. One recent development involves the school’s five dean offices: three posts are currently held by women faculty members.

As the reference in calculating speed of advancement, the authors used the most recent year in which professors at the height of the career ladder defended their doctorate. The presupposition was that all other professors who earned PhDs that same year or earlier would hypothetically have had the chance to make it to the top. The number of professors surveyed at each school or institute varied, reaching 79% in agricultural engineering and over 50% in two-thirds of Unicamp’s 27 divisions. The most surprising finding concerned the likelihood of climbing the career ladder. Of those faculty members considered eligible to attain the highest level, the rates of those who made it were similar for men (55.1%) and women (54.1%) across the university as a whole. But the numbers fluctuated from field to field, and this fluctuation was not always related to the proportion of women. Female professors reached the highest level more quickly than men in seven divisions, at the same speed in two, and more slowly than men in fourteen.

Marília Pinto de Carvalho, professor at the USP School of Education, investigates differences in elementary school performance between boys and girls. In her opinion, one of the article’s merits is that it clearly demonstrates the absence of any direct relation between having a larger number of women in a career and their chances for career advancement. “In some cases, it’s just the opposite. Given the type of data studied, we can’t delve into the reasons, but the research reveals a challenging picture,” she says. The fact that the study was limited to a single university, according to Carvalho, is more of a strong suit than a weakness. “If they had pursued more generic data, they might not have captured these phenomena.”

Balbachevsky says the novelty of the study lies in the fact that it shows how the cultures in different fields affect both the incorporation of women into academia as well as their career prospects. “There’s a tendency to say that the hard sciences are tough for women while the humanities are friendlier. The data show it’s not quite like that,” she states. “One thing of value in this study is that it shows the level of competition in academic careers in Brazil. Competition exists; it is substantial at a research university; and it can vary in accordance with a field’s profile,” she says.