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Why we need strong and stable: rewarding female loyalty in universities

  • 5 June 2017
  • By Diana Beech

On 8th June, the UK will head to the polls again, bringing an end to a General Election campaign that has been characterised by sharp slogans. ‘Strong and stable’ has become the mantra of Theresa May and we are now waiting to see if the nation will reward her with a renewed mandate for a further five years in No. 10.

But what if Theresa May were not vying for the post of Prime Minister and, instead, were a female academic using the same strapline to get a promotion in one of the UK’s world-class universities? As a politician, Theresa May has led a campaign drawing on her long service as Home Secretary to demonstrate her reliability and suitability to lead the country for another term. How would we rate her chances of success if she were a lecturer drawing on several years of experience in a single university to illustrate her loyalty and readiness for promotion?

At a HEPI-Elsevier dinner at the Royal Society last month, at which senior academics and policymakers met to discuss the topic of women in research, there was a general consensus around the table that the current system of rewarding academic mobility in the university appointments process can come at the expense of crediting institutional loyalty. Rather than recognising the ‘strong and stable’ in their midst, university appointments teams tend to reward the ‘migratory and mobile’.

In today’s global research environment, international mobility has almost become a rite of passage for any serious academic. The expectation of mobility, particularly in the sciences, has played an important role in shaping the European Research Area and the current ‘Horizon 2020’ Framework Programme. The Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) also explicitly finance fellowships involving mobility to or from another country.

Few would deny that periods spent abroad in this way equip academics with vital skills and international networks, which enhance their research and citation potential. However, prioritising international mobility in promotion procedures risks discriminating against those who have been unable to pack up their bags to take up an international appointment. And it is often women who are unfairly penalised by this approach.

According to fresh analysis by Elsevier, female researchers are generally less mobile than male researchers. This is probably due to the higher share of caring commitments undertaken by women and a reluctance to uproot their families. By foregoing mobility opportunities, some researchers never get a long list of international university appointments on their CVs, which can boost the reach and impact of their scholarly outputs. This does not mean, however, that they do not bring other forms of added value.

Is there not something to be said for academics who have stuck by an institution for many years, having nurtured generations of students with their teaching and ideas, or having honoured a single university with their publications? Is it right that these academics are sometimes denied promotion, while others move up the academic ranks simply by moving from one continent to the next, with barely any time to unpack in between? Is it not time that universities reflect on what they value more in their workforce – mobility or stability?

For our universities to flourish, we need to strike a balance in our expectations. Just as we need fresh talent to reinvigorate our academic systems, we also need strong foundations to nurture our institutions’ values, mission and purpose. In practice, this means rewarding a good mix of academics including those who have been loyal to their institutions and local communities, as well as those who have firmly embraced international mobility. Most importantly, for a sector committed to gender equality, this means accepting that current expectations of academic mobility are hampering female career progression in the sector.

The current practice of rewarding only the mobile needs to change. For many institutions, this means shifting incentives for promotion and counter-balancing the traditional citations measure with a framework which rewards long service, exemplary conduct and commitment to an institution. Only by breaking down institutional norms in this way will we pave the way for the female academics of today to provide the strong and stable leadership needed for the universities of tomorrow.

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