Gender gap ‘impossible to overcome’ without ‘intervention’

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Gender gaps in academia will never be eliminated unless hotshot male and female researchers are hired at equal rates, a New Zealand study has found.

But the “elephant in the room question” is whether enough star women researchers exist – not just in New Zealand, but anywhere in the world.

University of Canterbury researchers have combined 20 years of payroll data with corresponding information from the Performance Based Research System (PBRF) – which awards every New Zealand academic a personal research score of up to 700 – to investigate whether hiring and firing strategies could eliminate gender disparities in academia.

The study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, divided more than 1,300 current and former Canterbury academics into two groups – “high research activity” staff with PBRF scores of 500 or more, and “moderately active” researchers with lower scores.

The analysis harnessed a type of mathematical modelling normally used in ecological research to determine whether “tweaking” of human capital mechanisms could generate equitable numbers of male and female academics at every rank.

The study found that gender inequities would not simply resolve themselves over time. “Intervention” was needed to achieve equal representation, with different interventions required depending on people’s research profiles.

With moderate researchers, it was simply a matter of internally promoting as many women as men. But among top researchers, equal numbers of women and men must be hired from outside.

Lead author Alex James questioned whether this was possible without exacerbating gender equities elsewhere. “Where are you going to get them from? It’s a zero-sum game. Canterbury might get women with high research scores, but then Auckland’s going to lose them.”

Not only were there fewer female academics in New Zealand, but they also tended to have lower research scores than men, with women’s research opportunities eroded by disproportionate teaching and service responsibilities and career interruptions because of child-rearing.

Professor James said poaching star female researchers from overseas would solve little. “My gut feeling is this is a worldwide problem,” she said.

“New Zealand’s not special. We’re as good and as bad as the rest of the world. If I picked an Australian or British university, I don’t think I’d magically find equal numbers of men and women at the higher end [of research].”

The study also found that “markedly more” men than women attained professorial rank despite performing modestly on the research metrics that supposedly governed academic progression.

With professors unlikely to be hired from elsewhere unless they had strong research track records, this suggested they had been promoted internally “for their service or teaching prowess”.

“The international evidence [is] that women become stronger in the teaching and administrative side of university employment, whether they want to or not,” the paper says. “Despite women’s reported strength in the less research-intensive areas of university life, moderately scoring women do not seem to be promoted in the same way as men.”

Professor James said it was hard to avoid attributing this to sexism. “There’s such a huge body of research that talks about the authority gap,” she said.

“[Universities] look at men and we say, they’re an authority. They’re better, they’re smarter, they’re leaders. We’re happy to promote for other things as well as research. It’s a mixture. Men are happier to put themselves forward for promotions, and we’re happier to promote them.”

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