The reason for the productivity gap in female academics is…. Not what you think!

Researchers are supposed to question everything (even our own presumptions), because ultimately, we can’t deny the facts.  Though I’m finding this easier said than done with the recent Women in Medicine and Science (WAMS) event I attended!

Female academics, on average, produce fewer articles than male academics [1].  The ‘common sense’ understanding would be that family responsibilities such as ‘career breaks’ to have children and women disproportionately shouldering caring for children and the elderly takes time away from research, therefore they produce fewer outputs.  This is how the gap is understood in the media [2], current research [3], and it makes sense, right?

However, our own Dr. Sarah Jane Aiston, when re-analysing the Changing Academic Profession (CAP) survey – data from hundreds of male and female academics, from 19 different countries, over a three-year period, found that this does not appear to be the case! [4]

[Pauses to let this sink in]

Focusing on just five countries – Germany, Finland, US, Hong Kong and Japan (providing a range in terms of gender equality indicators, according to the Global Gender Index [5]), – these ‘obvious’ and self-evident facts were interrogated.

  1. Single women are more productive than married women.

Wrong!  They found that all married women are significantly more productive than single women (and to two significant places in Germany).

  1. Women who take career breaks are less productive than those that don’t.

Wrong!  Women that took career breaks produced more outputs than women that didn’t, and this difference was statistically significant in Finland and Japan.  (The only exception is Hong Kong where the difference was negligible.)

  1. Women with children produce fewer outputs than women without children.

Wrong!  All academics with children – produced more than those without.  For Finland, this difference was statistically significant, to two places!  (US women were the exception, though the US is ”among the worst in the world” for providing maternity / paternity leave [6]).  The number of children also made no difference to productivity, and in the case of Finland, the more children a woman has, the more productive she is (to two significant places)!

The next question is then – why are women producing fewer articles and chapters than men?  Aiston and Jung found that female academics were spending less time on research and more time on teaching and administration than their male counterparts [4]. It seems that female academics are assigned more of the academic ‘housework’ [8] – the committees [7], paperwork, and pastoral care [8] that is necessary but not valued, and is more in keeping with female gender stereotypes.  This meant that all women (regardless of motherhood) had less time available to write research outputs.  (Which reminds me of a paper I once worked on, where ‘lack of time’ and ‘workload allocation’ were the most commonly reported barriers to academics undertaking research [9].)

This was also in keeping with the findings of the second speaker of the event, Dr Jo Duberley, who reported on her joint Birmingham and Nottingham study of enablers and constraints for research-active female academics.  Women usually attributed their own or women’s lower outputs to tensions with family responsibilities, or individual problems or ‘failings’ [6].  Wider or ‘structural’ issues were rarely acknowledged, and if they were, it was usually understood as a ‘backlog’ from past inequality [1] that would disappear eventually; or inextricable job characteristics that could not be overcome.

While Dr. Aiston stressed that they are not advocating that all female academics get pregnant to increase their productivity(!); the end of child-friendly policies; or heteronormativity; the inescapable point is that the way the story is told (or the way the ‘discourse’ is ‘framed’), and understood, obscures wider, structural issues [10], and more implicit forms of bias [11].  If the gap in research outputs is ever to be addressed, increasing the transparency of workload allocation needs to be given as much serious consideration as a flexitime policy or crèche…

Natalie Tyldesley-Marshall 

[1] Ceci, S.J. et al. (2014). ‘Women in academic science: a changing landscape’. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15, pp.75–141. doi: 10.1177/1529100614541236

[2] Guardian readers. (2016) How did your working life change after childbirth?  https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/aug/23/how-did-your-working-life-change-after-childbirth

[3] Wietsma, A.C. (2014) ‘Barriers to success for female physicians in academic medicine’, Journal of Community Hospital Internal Medicine Perspectives, 4 (3). http://dx.doi.org/10.3402/jchimp.v4.24665

4] Aiston, S.J. and Jung, J. (2015) ‘Women academics and research productivity: an international comparison’, Gender and Education, 27 (3), pp.205-220. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2015.1024617

[5] Times Higher Education (2013) http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.aspx?storyCode=2003517

[6] Resick, P.A. (2012) ‘Getting out of our own way’, Behavior Therapy, 43, pp.708-711. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.beth.2012.03.010

[7] Kulis, S.S. & Miller-Loessi, K. (1992) ‘Organizations, Labor Markets, and Gender Integration in Academic Sociology’, Sociological Perspectives, 35 (1), pp.93-117. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1389370

[8] Cummins, H.A. (2005) ‘Mommy tracking single women in academia when they are not mommies’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 28, pp.222-231. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238370656

[9] Drew et al. (2010), ‘Fostering a research culture’, Journal of Health and Social Care Improvement, October: 1-11. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292975809

[10] Allen, K. (2016) UK still far adrift on salary and promotion as gender pay gap remains a gulf. https://www.theguardian.com/money/2016/aug/23/gender-pay-gap-average-18-per-cent-less-uk-women

[11] Nielsen, M.W. (2016) ‘Limits to meritocracy? Gender in academic recruitment and promotion processes’, Science and Public Policy, 43(3), pp.386–399. doi: 10.1093/scipol/scv052


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