Snakes and Ladders

  • Carmel Diezmann
  • Susan Grieshaber


Specific theorists and concepts were introduced and discussed in Chap.  5, and some of these ideas are drawn on in the analysis undertaken in this chapter. Considering catalysts (ladders) and inhibitors (snakes) gives insight into what it takes to make it to the professoriate and some of the factors involved. This chapter identifies four types of catalysts for and four types of inhibitors to career progression for women in the academy. These catalysts and inhibitors include Individual Influences, Academic Work Influences, Academic Environment Influences, and Social Influences, and each is discussed in this chapter. The culture of the Boys’ Club was identified as one of the four inhibitors in the category Academic Environment Influences. It is mentioned briefly in this chapter but is discussed more fully in Chap.  7.

6.1 Introduction

Specific theorists and concepts were introduced and discussed in Chap.  5, and some of these ideas are drawn on in the analysis undertaken in this chapter. Considering catalysts (ladders) and inhibitors (snakes) gives insight into what it takes to make it to the professoriate and some of the factors involved. This chapter identifies four types of catalysts for (Sect. 6.2) and four types of inhibitors (Sect. 6.3) to careerprogression for women in the academy. These catalysts and inhibitors include Individual Influences, Academic Work Influences, Academic Environment Influences, and Social Influences, and each is discussed in this chapter. The culture of the Boys’ Club was identified as one of the four inhibitors in the category Academic Environment Influences. It is mentioned briefly in this chapter but is discussed more fully in Chap.  7.

The gender balance in the professoriate in Australian universities and elsewhere continues to be heavily biased against women. In this chapter, we report data to examine how women professors (WPs) experienced and navigated power relationships (Foucault, 1980) and the omnipresent influences of “benchmark masculinity” (Thornton, 2013, p. 138) in the academy. We also explore how these successful women positioned themselves and were positioned by factors both inside and outside the academy to become professors in what is alien territory for many women. Women reported experiences that we subsequently categorized as career catalysts (Sect. 6.2) and career inhibitors (Sect. 6.3). The words used by WPs to discuss catalysts and inhibitors are pervasive, so this chapter provides accounts that rely on written survey responses (Phase 1) and interview transcript excerpts (Phases 2 and 4) in order to gain some insight into the everyday experiences of WP. Doing this contributes to identifying the restrictive normative categories that operate in daily academic life (inhibitors) and assists in thinking about how these inhibitors can be used to create “more inclusive conditions for sheltering and maintaining life that resists models of assimilation” (Butler, 2004, p. 4) . However, the variability of which catalysts and inhibitors WPs experienced, when these were experienced, and the way the WPs talked about them introduced the notion of luck. Using Derrida’s (1997) ideas brings a different perspective to what the WPs talked about as luck, or being in the right place at the right time. What the WPs called luck can also be referred to as events or irruptions that “allow for the possibility of the impossible” (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012, p. 23 (Chap.  5)) . Allowing for the possibility of the impossible involves investigating what is excluded by what is present (luck). Thus, the women’s journeys to the professoriate operated like a game of “snakes [inhibitors] and ladders [catalysts].” Each women’s journey was unique; ladders to supportsuccess were not always apparent, and the appearance of snakes was often unannounced and unexpected (Sect. 6.4). This book focuses on women professors, but it is possible that men in the academy who do not engage in benchmark masculinity might have similar experiences.

6.2 Career Catalysts: “The Ladders”

The notion of career catalysts is not new. However, given the imbalance between women and men in the professoriate, we pay particular heed to what WPs appeared to identify as “critical” career catalysts, that is, those catalysts that reportedly made a difference to how women understood themselves as academics and their positioning within the academy. The catalysts relate to Individual Influences (Sect. 6.2.1), Academic Work Influences (Sect. 6.2.2), Academic Environment Influences, and (Sect. 6.2.3) and Social Influences (Sect. 6.2.4). No catalytic Resource Influences were identified.

6.2.1 Catalysts: Individual Influences

Powerful catalysts described by these WPs related to enjoyment of academic work and satisfaction with the esteem that came from doing this job well. Enjoyment in academic work was reported by a number of WPs at various stages of their careers. One WP explained:

I really enjoy the academic work. I love the combination of research and teaching, there is always something different and challenging and creative to be doing [emphasis added], so the enjoyment of the work is something that has kept me going. (Karen1 (FG-F6))

For some WPs, this enjoyment and passion was still evident as they approached the end of their careers. One WP reported, “I am 55 this year … but I still enjoy my work very much. I am still applying for grants. I am proud of where I’ve got to and how things are going now” (Mary (IP-F5)). Another WP reported enjoyment and the new challenges she faced late in her career:

I am in the last decade of my waged career. I have just taken up a new position at a new university and feel absolutely revitalized. I am not someone who is content to just ‘pass time’ and tread water until retirement. I am now in a prime position to … consolidate my new ‘passion’ in research and scholarship [emphasis added], and hopefully leave the world in a better place than when I entered it. I am very happy in my job! (Greta (S-F47))

The enjoyment reported by these women relates to being in a state of ongoing evolution where their work is deeply satisfying if not passionate, is recognized in the academy, and has broader social value. Thus, for these WPs, enjoyment can be conceived as the result of women working creatively to make the work spaces valuable for themselves. This individual dimension of career satisfaction has been reported elsewhere (e.g., Bozeman & Gaughan, 2011; Seifert & Umbach, 2008).

Coupled with enjoyment of the academic role was esteem, accorded through recognition by an individual or group that an academic values. For example, one WP explained how esteem in the form of professional recognition contributed to career success:

I stayed very focused and I guess over time it has become increasingly obvious that the work has been recognised through a number of ARC [Australian Research Council] grants and that builds its own momentum because you work with different people, you publish more broadly, you become more well known and then of course that all builds career pathways as you’re going. (Jennifer2 (IP-F1))

This ability to stay focused over time indicates a high level of academic motivation (Gladwin, McDonald, & McKay, 2014).

For other WPs, esteem related to standing within the family. Karen explained that she felt driven due to a need to prove her academic worthiness to herself and her family. She also acknowledged that her highly competitive nature had value in the male-dominated academy:

I am the first in my family to come to university [emphasis added] too. I think a big part for me to make it through to Professor is because I’m driven [emphasis added]. I had a need to prove something to myself for a long time, which I think I am finally over, but it did keep me going throughout the years when I needed it. I am quite a competitive person which probably helps when you are competing against all these men [emphasis added]. (Karen (FG-F6))

Being able “to prove something to oneself” and to academic peers provided these women with positive endorsement of how they were undertaking their academic work role and would likely have strengthened their confidence. Feedback from peers also helps calibrate performance and allows individuals to “fine-tune” what they are doing. The need to prove oneself to family can be explained by women’s awareness that the family is substantially impacted by a women’s academic career (e.g., European Commission, 2016).

However, being competitive is associated with stereotypes of masculinity and inconsistent with the normative constraints of femininity. Each time WPs are competitive, are driven, win big grants, and so on, they are disrupting stereotypical representations of femininity in everyday life and in the academy and challenging established relations of power. WPs are showing that normative categories such as benchmark man and other rigid structures can be undone and remade (Butler, 1990) in ways that can destabilize established gender categories (Derrida, 1976) . Being driven, competitive, and the first in the family to attend university are examples of resistance and challenge to conventional understandings of women and universities and offer opportunities to subvert stereotypes that are based on limiting and limited understandings of femininity.

Together, enjoyment and esteem appear to be powerful catalysts because they operate in a synergistic and iterative way. If an individual enjoys work and experiencessuccess, which is recognized by esteem, further enjoyment results, and the cycle continues. This snowballing effect of esteem leading to greater esteem can be explained by the theory of accumulated advantage (Merton, 1973; Rossiter, 1993). Originally, this phenomenon was referred to as the “Matthew effect,” a term with biblical origins coined by Merton (1973). More recently, Rossiter (1993) has argued for this phenomenon to be known as “the Matthew Matilda effect” (p. 325), retaining the biblical origin (Matthew) and highlighting the role of Matilda Gage who “both experienced and articulated this phenomenon” (p. 325) in the nineteenth century. Although women are not necessarily dependent on their universities for either enjoyment of their work or professional esteem, their success can be recognized through advancement to the professoriate.

6.2.2 Catalysts: Academic Work Influences

The influence of academic work on career progression occurred through a series of manageable steps in the academic hierarchy. Susan’s (FG-F3) comment is typical of many women in the professoriate: “I think Associate Professor was continuing the trajectory; got to Senior Lecturer so why not get to the next level? [emphasis added].” This shorter-term focus on the next academic step rather than the ultimate step was emblematic. Hence, some women expressed surprise that they reached the professoriate: “I never thought that I would be a Prof [sic] one day. It just sort of happened to me [emphasis added]” (Anna (FG-F20)). None of the WPs’ responses suggested that they had aspirations to become a professor early in their careers. Rather the WPs’ reflections on becoming a professor were entwined with their commitment to their jobs. Carol (FG-F11) reported her focus was self-fulfillment rather than a professorial aspiration:

I mean I guess the idea of me becoming a Professor was appealing but it wasn’t the be all and end all. I think it was a desire to do things really well and achieve a lot of satisfaction and that led ultimately to me becoming a Prof [sic; emphasis added]. (Carol (FG-F11))

There are three plausible explanations for WPs’ stated lack of professorial aspirations. First, their lack of ambition could be the result of gendered roles in society where men have expectations of reaching the professoriate but women don’t (Baker, 2010). Second, women do not have the career planning skills to advance their career (Doherty & Manfredi, 2005; Ward, 2003). Hence, they might not know how to structure their career to reach the professoriate. Third, if women attribute their career success to luck (Chap.  8), they might feel reaching the professoriate is random and beyond their control.

We have distilled some of the strategies that these WPs seem to have used in the context of being promoted and suggest that because these strategies subvert by making marginal increments and do not overly threaten the structural power of the center, they can be borne by the center. As teaching machines , universities are “the aggregative apparatus of Euro-American university education, where weapons for the play of power/knowledge as puissance/connaissance [emphasis in original] are daily put together, bit by bit, according to a history rather different from our own” (Spivak, 1993, p. 53). Here Spivak uses Foucault’s (1980) concept of power/ knowledge to refer to the fixed traditions and received knowledge (and therefore a stable subject, e.g., benchmark man) that are often imposed structurally in universities (see Chap.  5). In this context, we propose that survivors of promotion to professor inhabit the academy in a certain way (Spivak, 1993), perhaps chameleon-like with changing subjectivities (Foucault, 1980), using the available resources to play the game (Derrida, 1976) and achieve their (often unarticulated) aspirations. They do this through a combination of informed and calculated risks that are attuned to the (promotion) requirements and audience and are backed by skills and abilities, which are highly likely to have been supported through mentoring. It means inhabiting the academy using different subjectivities that can be made to work within a changing academic environment, enabling women to be recognized, driven, and competitive and possibly being a “token” female on a committee as a way of using the available resources to gain experience and knowledge to subvert and reinscribe meaning from the outside in.

Once women reach the professoriate, they are confronted with changed circumstances. At full professor, there is no further incremental step forward so the question arises of, where to next? For Natalie (E-F2) and Rachel (IP-F6), it was acceptance of their professorial position and contentment:

I am not considering career advancement at all – happy with my lot [emphasis added]. (Natalie (IE-F2))

What I am doing now suits me really well [emphasis added] and I am not interested in going on to a role that would involve a lot more management. (Rachel (IP-F6))

Emma (IP-F2) also expressed contentment following a failed application for a higher position. Her application and subsequent decision indicated that she was experiencing success in her current position and that she might not be comfortable in the context of a pro-vice-chancellor (PVC) role in the existing circumstances:

I am happy where I am now. I did think about it and I did apply for a position of PVC research but I didn’t get it and I was a little disappointed initially, but in hindsight I am glad that I didn’t [emphasis added], not my style and I have been doing well – looked after too [well] at the university. (Emma (IP-F2))

In contrast to the decision-making expressed by the women above, Pamela (IP-F4) ceded control of the next step to the university hierarchy. Her approach might indicate that she feels powerless to some extent because the decisions are up to others:

I am finding it much harder now to figure out what I want to do over the next 10 years, I am 52 so what is it that I want to do in my Academic Career; and I haven’t really decided. It might be decided for me [emphasis added] because there’s probably a few positions coming up soon. (Pamela (IP-F4))

The above responses suggest that having reached the professoriate, women can be confronted with decisions about whether to stay in what could be called a “known” space or whether to attempt to move into unknown territory. Some choose to stay in the known space (Natalie, Rachel); another tested the waters and quickly retreated (Emma), while another waited for those with decision-making power to direct her next move (Pamela). What is apparently lacking is a determined and strategic forward movement by WPs into the space of senior leadership in universities. However, this step is not small. Thornton (2013) explained that as more women have progressed through the ranks in various organizations, those in power in senior positions have reacted by strongly protecting their territory: there has been a “hardening of the line of demarcation between the apex and the base of the organizational pyramid” (p. 128). In Spivak’s (1993) terms, the center is likely resisting the movement of women towards the apex and the possibilities for accessing the structural power that resides there. For those in academia, Thornton’s ideas suggest that the step from the professoriate to a senior leadership position is strongly bound by notions of tradition, power, and privilege that determine access, that is, the fixed traditions and received knowledge known as puissance/connaissance (Foucault, 1980) .

WPs’ career progressions can be explained by a series of small steps. However, the data on women entering academe and reaching the professoriate (Sect.  2.2) suggests that some women do not make or take these steps to reach the professoriate. Not taking the next step might indicate women lack the capability, or it could be a confidence issue such as thinking that they lack the capacity. Further, it might not be attempted because it’s too hard for women managing both work and family lives. These issues of perceived capability or lack of confidence are gender issues (Sect.  3.2.3).

6.2.3 Catalysts: Academic Environment Influences

The academic environment supports women’s career progression through (1) a variety of professional learning opportunities; (2) opportunities to undertake representative roles; (3) support for women entering or reentering the university; (4) flexibility of work practices; and (5) merit-based assessment. These various supports appear to be related to Australian legislation requiring Equal Employment Opportunities (EEO) for women (Winchester, Lorenzo, Browning, & Chesterman, 2006). These EEO are examples of some traditional and fixed structures having been destabilized (Derrida, 1997) and opportunities for long-term change capitalized on through legislation. Professional Learning Opportunities

Women reported on the value of professional learning opportunities at faculty, university, and cross-institutional levels. Rachel (IP-F6) spoke about the value of a faculty-based program:

I think a combination of carefully structured career development programs like [Name of an Assistant Dean] has done, encouraging mentoring and I think really trying to be very transparent and upfront, especially with women, but early career academics with things like how teaching can be a black hole and meetings and other things can all be a black hole. (Rachel (IP-F6))

The value of an institution’s development program was endorsed by Elizabeth (IE-F1). However, in tandem she identified that for her a research center was a more supportive environment than the faculty:

For most of my career, encouragement has come from peers and mentors at other universities. Now that I have moved from a faculty to a research centre environment, there is more encouragement and support within [Name of University]. [Name of University]’s Executive women’s development program in 2011 was excellent. (Elizabeth (IE-F1))

Pamela (IP-F4) endorsed the value of leadership courses broadly and the benefit of a specific program: “I would say I have been given opportunities in terms of leadership development courses and things like that so the university has been very supportive, they have certainly helped me in those kinds of ways.”

Cross-institutional programs also had benefits. For example, Mary (IP-F5) highlighted the long-term effect of her participation in a conference:

There was also an Action Research Conference thing that women were invited to … early in my career and that allowed me to get to know a lot of female professors at university and that has come back to help me. For example, we just put in a grant and the Head of the Research Institute who was able to contribute some cash to that grant application was one of the women at that early conference. Even though we have not had that much contact, we know each other, we’ve known each other around the university for years and there was that level of trust and relationship there beforehand. (Mary (IP-F5))

Women benefit particularly from opportunities for networking (Chesterman, 2005; Pyke, 2013) and professional support when it addresses career advancement in a male-oriented environment (Tessens, White, & Web, 2011).

Women who had been supported through professional learning programs assumed some responsibility for these programs to continue in order to pass on knowledge to subsequent generations of academic women. For example, Pamela (IP-F4) had been a speaker at some events. She also reflected that there was less happening now and could play a more proactive role in supporting programs for women:

Our university has a Women’s development program. I’ve always both attended some and spoken at quite a few of those types of things as well [emphasis added] … I have been lucky enough to have been involved in the WEXDEV3 program and I did a leadership course and I always find those kind of things extremely useful through the networking to see how other women cope and deal with various issues in their careers. … I think there is less [programs for women] than there used to be. I think that maybe I should be proactive and go out and put some things up, not just wait for somebody else to do it [emphasis added]. (Pamela (IP-F4))

These various programs have multiple benefits for women apart from the actual content of the program. Participation in these courses exposes women to female role models and creates opportunities for networking. It also provides evidence that aspects of the academy have been destabilized and reinscribed in ways that validate the presence of women (Derrida, 1976) . Being selected for a program by a supervisor is a vote of confidence in a woman’s capability and potential. It marks her as someone who is expected to progress through the academic ranks and has leadership potential. It also marks the continued presence of women being expected to move through the academic ranks and therefore continues to enable work to change established structures within universities (Derrida, 1976; Spivak, 1993). Derrida signals the tension between the conservation of traditional structures and heterogeneity, which he describes as “something absolutely new, and a break” (p. 6). He offers a reminder that nothing is ever guaranteed beyond spaces in the academy that can foster destabilizing moments. Opportunities to Undertake Representative Roles

The opportunity to undertake representative roles within the university was reported as both a catalyst, discussed below, and an inhibitor (see Sect. 6.3.3). The catalytic effect of women undertaking representative roles was through their exposure to decision-making processes and practices at the university level. Survey respondents Deborah (S-F517) and Delia (S-F345) reflected on how being a woman created opportunities at the university level:

Because there is a requirement that women are represented on committees, this has meant that I obtained exposure to a wider range of admin jobs faster than many of my male colleagues [emphasis added] and I believe this assisted in my promotion to Associate Professor. (Deborah (S-F517))

There have been occasions where I have received positive discrimination because I am a woman [emphasis added]. For example, I believe there have been occasions when I have been invited to participate on a committee or attend a university event to improve the gender balance. I think the organisers selected me for my qualities (not just simply because I am a female), but there may have been males with similar qualities not given the opportunities that I have been given. (Delia (S-F345))

For Ashley (S-F59), being a woman resulted in opportunities within her discipline:

I have more easily developed an international research profile, and have received international opportunities, as a result of being a female in a heavily male-dominated field [emphasis added] – I am more visible and that helps. I have also been included in more high-level discussions/committees because of a need to round out gender numbers, and that has given me access to understanding higher-level decision-making. (Ashley (S-F59))

However, undertaking representative roles can also be an inhibitor for women (Sect. 6.3.3). Support for Women Entering or Reentering the University

Initiatives that help women enter or reenter the university or catch up following maternity leave were acknowledged as catalysts by WPs. Pamela (IP-F4) explained that affirmative action had enabled her to enter into a male-dominated discipline in the university. However, she also acknowledged that she would not get a job now:

It was a bit fortuitous; I would not get a job in academia now because I did not have anything other than my Honours degree. At the time I was looking to get out of engineering, as a lot of women are for a whole range of reasons but anyway this institution had just gone through a restructuring, they had gone from being a Teacher’s College to a university, so they did a kind of staff renewal thing and offered a lot of Level A permanent positions. In engineering they had the foresight to see they had no women on staff and that they needed to get some women so they applied for an exemption of the Equal Opportunity Act [emphasis added] and advertised women only positions; and because of that, and because they knew there was such a small pool and that they were very unlikely to have PhDs, they said PhD or equivalent industryexperience. Out of all of those fortuitous circumstances that is how I ended up getting the job. I have said to the VC on more than one occasion, because they think I am one of their leading lights, I said you realise I wouldn’t get a job now-a-days [emphasis added]. (Pamela (IP-F4))

Pamela’s ability to capitalize on the opportunity of supported entry into academia and become “one of their leading lights” highlights the importance of considering women with nontraditional career paths as potential employees. As is evident from Pamela, academic standing at the entry point of academia is not a reliable predictor of career progression.

Once women enter academia, some will take leave for childbearing and child-rearing. Mary (IP-F5) reported that following maternity leave, she benefitted particularly from a teaching buyout scheme:

[The scheme] is money designed to relieve you of teaching to help you finish a project that is important to promotion … it helped me buy out a fair chunk of teaching for one semester and that was prior to my promotion to Senior Lecturer and I think I finished a book or something like that [emphasis added]. (Mary (IP-F5))

Such a program recognizes that parental leave has personal and professional components. The personal component relates to the time needed for childbearing and childcare, while the professional component acknowledges that childbearing and child-rearing have a career impact, particularly in research (Baker, 2012; Symonds, 2007). The relationship between reentry and support schemes in achieving promotion was highlighted by Chelsea (S-F296): “I have benefitted personally from affirmative action schemes including a re-entry fellowship [emphasis added] at post-doc level and promoting women[’s] fellowship to enhance promotion possibilities.”

Supporting women to enter and reenter academia successfully at various career points should not be viewed as a benefit that favors women over men. Rather, these supports act to rectify the balance in opportunity for women and men at points in time when women are at a specific disadvantage. Although some men have access to parental leave, it is women who bear children and typically take greater responsibility for childcare (e.g., Sussman & Yssaad, 2005). Hence, the absence of calibration mechanisms, such as support schemes, reinforces a culture of male advantage over women in the academy. Flexibility of Work Practices

The provision of flexibility in Australian workplaces is a component of EEO legislation (Winchester et al., 2006). Some WPs highlighted that flexibility in academia could assist in managing family responsibilities:

I still think Academia is a great career and it is a great career when you do have family because there is a lot of flexibility in many ways. (Pamela (IP-F4))

Yes, absolutely [working in the university helped balance raising a child with work] and people were very understanding. That is one of the things I like about working in a university, you do have that flexibility and you can sit and work for say 10 hours in a stretch if you need to catch up and then take time off for family things if that is required. (Diane (IP-F3))

Although these women’s experiences of the flexibility of academic work were particularly positive, specific women’s experiences depend on their supervisor and workplace. The challenge of balancing work and family can be negative for women’s career advancement (Sect. 6.3.4). Merit-Based Assessments

Academic track records are assessed for multiple purposes including academic vacancies, promotions, or research or teaching grants or awards. A key catalyst identified by women was the adoption of “merit-based” assessments. For example, Frances (S-F486) explained how the use of merit-based processes benefitted her:

… the real problem for me was actually getting to the shortlist and interview stage. Once affirmative actions informed HR processes, this became easier [emphasis added] … The more evidence is required for ‘quality’, the easier it has been for women in my situation to establish their achievements. (Frances (S-F486))

The absence of unilateral merit-based processes in universities speaks volumes about the gendered powerstructures and reproductive male culture that has characterized the academy (e.g., Heward, 1994; Ledford, 2012). However, so too does a gendered conception of merit (Wilson, Marks, Noone, & Hamilton-Mackenzie, 2010) (See Sect.  2.4.1). Nonetheless, there appeared to be progression in favor of women with merit-based processes being associated with opportunity as described above (Frances). Further, funding agencies, apart from universities, followed suit. For example, in assessments for awarding nationally competitive research grants, opportunity and performance are linked with the assessment of “Research Opportunity and Performance Evidence” (Australian Research Council [ARC], 2015). Research opportunity spans “career experiences (relative to opportunity)” and “career interruptions” (ARC, 2015). Merit, however, can be a mirage if gendered forces are at work (Thornton, 2013). Hence, it can also be an inhibitor (see Sect. 6.3.3). Conclusion

The catalysts described above that support women’s academic career progression relate to the institutional dimension in terms of career satisfaction (Bozeman & Gaughan, 2011; Hensel, 1991). It might be expected that environmental catalysts have had the most impact on academic women’s career progression in Australia because they are grounded in EEO policies that are now decades old (e.g., Winchester et al., 2006). However, despite the legislation and associated catalysts, the desired improvement in the proportion of women in the professoriate has not been achieved in Australia or elsewhere (Sect.  2.2). There are two plausible explanations for this lack of improvement. First, although we are encouraged by the environmental catalysts described above, they are only early steps towards some semblance of a “level playing field” for academic women and men. Second, the existence of a policy is not sufficient to assume that it will be implemented in a way that will benefit women or implemented consistently across the institution. For example, Elizabeth (IE-F1) contrasted the support she received from one organizational unit to another in the same university: “Now that I have moved from a Faculty to a Research Centre environment, there is more encouragement and support within [Name of University].” In Spivak’s (1993) terms, the distinction is the type of teaching machine (university/faculty/department) that women enter, as the type of machine determines the experiences women have, which can mean that “the struggle continues, in different ways, after the infiltration” (p. ix). Thus, women in the same university may be positioned differently depending on their organizational unit and its leadership or power within the university.

6.2.4 Catalysts: Social Influences

The importance of mentoring for career progression was a recurrent theme in the data from WPs. They were mentored for various reasons by different people.

Michelle (FG-F14) highlighted the key role of doctoral supervisors at the beginning of an academic career. However, she expressed the desire for additional mentors in her career and indicated that she had benefitted from having a mentor assigned when she commenced a new role:

The people who encouraged me were my doctorate co-supervisors [emphasis added] … They never had a view of me as someone who couldn’t do it. From day one they accepted me as an academic, research sort of person so they were extremely important … I think if I had had more role models or mentoring [emphasis added] that would have been very helpful, there was a lack of that. In this job that I have now I have a mentor assigned to me for the first time in my career, and I found that quite helpful. (Michelle (FG-F14))

Michelle’s comment about wanting more role models and mentoring after experiencing the benefit of a mentor in her new role suggests that she did not perceive her doctoral supervisors as ongoing mentors or recognize mentoring early in her career.

Betty (FG-F8) was mentored by the Dean following an unsuccessful promotion application:

When I applied for promotion the first time I missed out by 0.09 or something like that so I went to see her [female Dean] and she was enormously supportive [emphasis added] and said well next time round we’ll do this and this and I’ll find things for you. I didn’t have a very strong professional background and she said we’ll find opportunities, put you on committees and things like that. (Betty (FG-F8))

This example shows the influence of the Dean in providing access to opportunities that are recognized and valued by the university and support positive promotion outcomes.

Women’s mentors extended beyond university affiliations to disciplinecolleagues. For example, Jennifer (IP-F1) shared her experience of how she had benefitted from the mentorship of international colleagues concerning publications:

Setting up international links, they have come about through research connections. They are certainly there. I have had very generous colleagues in the US and Sweden. I am very aware that they have gone out of their way to bring me in on particular publications that they knew would be significant. I have contributed. They could have just worked with their colleagues but they made an effort to bring me on and in a sense that is a type of mentoring too. They have been generous with their time. It is not like I have not worked for it but people have made an effort to extend beyond themselves and give you a go with the understanding that it might support you in your professional development. (Jennifer (IP-F1))

The acknowledgement by these women of the value of a mentor within and beyond the university is consistent with the benefits identified elsewhere (Gardiner, Tiggemann, Kearns, & Marshall, 2007; Schmidt & Faber, 2016). However, because gender also impactsacademic career progression, the gender of the mentor is relevant to any discussion of mentoring.

The data revealed that mentoring and gender interact in two ways. First, significant differences were noted in the gender of the mentors compared to the mentees in the survey. WPs were mentored by female and male academics in the ratio of 47:53. However, in contrast, male professors were mentored by female and male academics in the ratio of 1:9. With men having a substantially higher proportion of male mentors (90%) compared with women (53%), a higher proportion of men are privy to the powerful influences of male mentors (Fig. 6.1).
Fig. 6.1

Comparison of the gender of professors and their mentors

Second, women are highly committed to mentoring more junior staff to succeed, particularly junior women. Their reasons related broadly to opportunity and academic culture and can be seen as openings or spaces to permeate and potentially dismantle traditional hierarchical structures (Derrida, 1997) . Some female mentors created and actively sought female early career academics to fill the spaces so created. Melissa (FG-F18) was proactive in supporting others to build their research profiles and introduced a calculated element of opportunity into identifying female academics for mentoring:

I do a lot of mentoring. We actively go and seek people to do joint research projects. So we are constantly going and asking people if they want to join our team or do they want to come in as an investigator on my ARC because we always have an ECR.4 I am actually pretty good at doing that because I didn’t have that myself. I am keen to make sure that the women I work with at least get that opportunity [emphasis added]. (Melissa (FG-F18))

Other mentoring included encouraging staff to take up opportunities for positions or awards:

I find I say to people – are you applying for that job? Like last night I rang somebody, there is a job in another part of the university for senior lecturer and I said well you are lecturer why don’t you go for it. I am also very much on the trail of people participating for awards, like we have VC awards or teaching awards and I’ll help people to apply [emphasis added]. (Brenda (FG-F19))

Mentoring also featured as a “payback” or “paying it forward” for opportunities that women had been given:

I guess now that I have been promoted myself I am seeing that [mentoring] role more and more in what I do. It is a time to, Okay we are doing this project, would it be better led by this person, because that person has an opportunity to shine then and show leadership that is important for their personal trajectory. It is not like you just throw anybody in, I am not saying that, because you have a team of people and somebody is almost there and can do that work, you kind of need to push them forward and say you take the lead, I’ll be here as well. I see that as more and more my role now. I guess it’s a bit of payback. (Jennifer (IP-F1))

Mentoring undoubtedly supports career progression by providing strategic guidance, professional relationships, and networking (Gardiner et al., 2007; Schmidt & Faber, 2016; Ward, 2003). However there are differences in the mentoring provided by women and men.

Female mentors provide important female role models (Foster, 2001) and connect the mentee with someone who presumably through their knowledge and experience of the gendered academic workplace can provide the mentee with guidance for ways to work successfully. For example, Lucy (S-F278) adopted a realist stance in how and why she mentored women: “[So] they can deal better with the negativity and hostility that they may still encounter.” Female mentors can also provide advice and support that can assist academic women to understand themselves and how to move forward in the academic hierarchy (Ibarra, Carter, & Silva, 2010). Morley (2013) explains that when women take on mentoring, it “implicitly relies on generational power geometries” (p. 125), that is, knowledge being passed down from those of senior rank who are higher in the academic hierarchy to those who are junior and of lower rank. Hence, as reflected in the data, the passing down of wisdom is strategic and intentional and directed towards disrupting the status quo by passing on techniques that unsettle traditional structures (Derrida, 1997) and ensure that women have a continuing and steadfast presence.

Male mentors for women are also important because traditionally, they are likely to be positioned more powerfully, as in the case of benchmark man (Thornton, 1990, 2013). Through their networks, men are privy to decision-making processes as “insiders.” Mentorship by men can be stronger when it takes the form of sponsorship and advocacy for the mentee where career moves are planned and can be endorsed publically (Ibarra et al., 2010). This is not to suggest that men mentor women and men in similar ways. According to van den Brink and Benschop (2012), male academics receive stronger mentoring than female.

Though the benefits of mentoring for academic women are recognized, these benefits are diminished if the woman being mentored is competing with a sponsored man. Hence, rather than “leveling the academic playing field,” gender-based mentoring might accentuate the imbalance.

6.3 Career Inhibitors: “The Snakes”

Participants reported four types of inhibitory influences. These inhibitors related to Individual Influences (Sect. 6.3.1), Academic Work Influences (Sect. 6.3.2), Academic Environment Influences (Sect. 6.3.3), and Social Influences (Sect. 6.3.4). No inhibitory Resource Influences were identified.

6.3.1 Inhibitors: Individual Influences

Women’s lack of confidence in their abilities was a repeated theme throughout WPs’ responses, despite having been appointed to the professoriate. Often, it was coupled with a lack of self-promotion: “In my own case I lacked the skills of self-promotion and confidence” (Glenda (S-F315)). The flow on effect of a lack of confidence appears to be risk-averse behavior manifesting as engaging in self-censorship and reluctance to apply for positions or promotion unless success is nearly guaranteed:

Women tend to only apply or consider themselves suitable if 99.9% sure they will get it. (Ruth (S-F441))

Experience of self-censorship in applying for positions and selling self. (Cheryl (S-F324))

From my experience, women lacked confidence and thought they were not good enough to be promoted. This became obvious when i [sic] attended a seminar for promotion. It took me 18 years to apply for promotion. (Gloria (S-F45))

Such risk-averse behavior can be explained by reluctance to challenge or be at odds with the existing power base. Women and men appear to relate to this power base in distinctive ways through self-promotion and leadership:

Women [are] usually not as assertive [emphasis added] as men. (Wendy (S-F133))

Women don’t tend to “blow their own horn” [emphasis added] as strongly as most men. (Bethany (S-F464))

Women often don’t apply as soon as they might [emphasis added] whereas men seem to apply much sooner, sometimes sooner than they should. (Tegan (S-F397))

Women are less vocal about their achievements [emphasis added] than their male counterparts. Also women are less likely to put their hands up for positions of authority [emphasis added] and sometimes underestimate their capability. (Hannah (S-F343))

My leadership style is more collegial and less combative [emphasis added]. Male colleagues are more adversarial and take more risks. (Lucy (S-F278))

These behaviors appear to be reinforced by those in powerful positions even when the power base includes senior women:

I think that men sometimes are able to get more recognition for small initiatives, whereas women take their successes for granted because we are so used to juggling multiple tasks. We tend not to be strategic enough in getting recognition for all that we do [emphasis added]. Senior women sometimes contribute to that by not giving as much acknowledgement to other women and their successes. (Monica (S-F171))

The lack of support by senior women for other women is referred to as the “queen bee” syndrome, where the security of their own position is protected at the expense of other women’s advancement (Bronstein, 2001; Camussi, & Leccardi, 2005) (see also Sect.  3.6.1).

Overall, the message from these women about confidence is that they perceive themselves to be less than men and far from the ideal academic (Thornton, 2013): lacking skills in “self-promotion and confidence” (Glenda (S-F315)); being “less vocal” (Hannah (S-F343)); “less likely to put their hands up” (Hannah (S-F343)); less likely to acknowledge “other women and their successes” (Monica (S-F171)); “less combative” (Lucy (S-F278)); “not as assertive as men” (Wendy (S-F133)); not “strategic enough” (Monica (S-F171)); and engaged in “self-censorship” (Cheryl (S-F324)). Holding such views can erode an individual’s feelings of self-worth and perceived organizational value. Rita (S-F128) captures this individual and organizational sentiment: “I think many women (by no means all) lack confidence in their abilities but there is also a general lack of support for women.”

Three reasons were articulated for academic women’s lack of confidence. First, women are socialized to be passive rather than assertive. As Louise (S-F119) explained, “Women are not generally socially trained, or accustomed, to ‘selling themselves’, advertising their own achievements, asserting their own authority and opinions, and therefore can do some of these things less, or poorly, and agonise about them more.” Whether the socialization of women changes over time is debatable. One participant identified passivity training as a generational artifact of the past: “Women of my generation have had to learn to be assertive about their skills and attributes” (Jill (S-F207)). However, another stated that passivity was still part of women’s socialization: “Women are still taught to be docile, to follow leads, fulfil criteria and please those in authority, rather than setting new agendas” (Stacy (S-F232)). According to one woman, the origin of passivity has its roots in personality differences between women and men, which introduces the complex issue of the impact of nature versus nurture: “Different personalities: women are usually more considered and less demanding [emphasis added]” (Hayley (S-F351)). Collectively, the viewpoints above paint women as docile followers who attempt to please and lack confidence and the skills of self-promotion and strategy. Such academics neither threaten nor disrupt the established power base in universities. However, some women are aware of the need to subvert or relearn to achieve: “Still learning to be political and not passionate! [O]r to use my passion to get what I want!” (Lana (S-F461)).

Second, academic women’s lack of confidence is a result of the male-dominated academic environment in which they work:

Men have been over represented on every academic decision making body I have ever been associated with. (Sonya (S-F317))

A conflict of management styles is common and something I have experienced. Most women I know find universities dominated by a managerialist orientation (mostly male). Playing this kind of game is difficult for many women. (Emily (S-F502))

Women are challenged in this process because they are expected to have a “thick skin” (Amanda (S-F30)) and avoid self-doubt (Audrey (S-F348)):

It depends on the field, but in my male-dominated field it takes time for male colleagues to respect a young female professor and head of school. You need a thick skin and to not let your confidence be affected. (Amanda)

Glass ceiling and the qualities necessary to break through this make for bad managers - either second guessing themselves and [sic] lacking confidence to take initiatives. (Audrey)

The development of thick skin and avoidance of self-doubt suggest that women should alter themselves to accommodate the academic environment. However, the environment should be scrutinized to ensure that the assessment, feedback, and guidance provided are not gender-biased.

Third, women’s lack of confidence can be the result of what Teresa (S-F70) referred to as “family distracted careers.” This career orientation acknowledges the tension between career and family that many women face:

Women to do not consider themselves suitable/available/ or even in the position and the promotion system supports self promotion which women are less inclined to do especially with family distracted careers. Women do not often consider their work a career. (Teresa (S-F70))

Managing family responsibilities and having a sense of self-assurance often hamper female academics in achieving goals in positions of authority. (Judy (S-F113))

For some of these women, the lack of confidence at work extended to their family responsibilities. Hence, they were reluctant to take up an opportunity due to the family disruption it might cause:

Managing family responsibilities and having a sense of self-assurance often hamper female academics in achieving goals in positions of authority. (Judy (S-F113))

Self-doubts (lack of confidence) and family responsibilities can make one reluctant to apply for positions or move between positions, especially overseas and interstate. (Jacqueline (S-F408))

Though the climate is not openly hostile (Pyke, 2013) to women, it is covertly hostile if women need to look, think, and work in ways that are acceptable to men in power but require changes to themselves. It also explains the importance of professors having the characteristics of resilience, persistence, relationship builder, self-motivation, manager of emotions, and adaptor to the environment (Gladwin et al., 2014).

6.3.2 Inhibitors: Academic Work Influences

The major workload issue raised by women was the high proportion of teaching in their academic duties and the differential support provided to women and men to undertake these duties:

Got landed with teaching huge first year classes (700+ students) without the assistance typically given to males [emphasis added] (did a phone survey at my uni and found almost all huge first year units were allocated to relatively new, conscientious women). (Stephanie (S-F31))

Greta (S-F47) viewed this teaching overload or imbalance as a form of discrimination because it prevented the building of a strong research profile:

Latent [discrimination]: Head of School giving greater teaching loads to women [emphasis added] Lecturers and Senior Lecturers because ‘they were good at it’ (i.e., the nurturing). This was sustained over many years effectively diminishing opportunities for research. Open [discrimination]: Failure to consult, being ignored and blatant sexist remarks [emphasis added] being made at meetings etc. by male peers and chairs. (Greta (S-F47))

The overload or imbalance of teaching over other academic duties acts as an inhibitor when it negatively affects research performance, a key promotion criterion (e.g., Barrett & Barrett, 2011; Thornton, 2013), or lessens career satisfaction (e.g., Sloane & Ward, 2001; Ward & Sloane, 2000). For Lola (S-F77), this imbalance of teaching duties and research opportunities became a source of regret later in her career:

I am now in my 60s. I came to academia in my early 40s and studied and worked. While I have enjoyed my career and really like teaching, I regret not having the opportunities to develop the research aspect of my role [emphasis added]. (Lola (S-F77))

For some women, a high teaching load was their preference. Mary (IP-F5) explained that this preference was due to the immediacy of positive feedback for teaching compared to research:

The hindrances have probably been like most females, I got caught up in the teaching first [emphasis added], I also got caught up with my Professional Association, I also got caught up with clinical work in that as one academic said the other day, teaching and clinical work it [will] always give you so many positives, you know clients love it when they see you or students are very positive, you get that immediate positive reinforcement [emphasis added] whereas with research you spend a month or so writing a grant application and then you might get a two line rejection letter. So the rewards are not immediate and they are not always positive. It is easy to see that you could become engrossed in teaching [emphasis added] and clinical work because the rewards are immediate and positive. I did go through that time and I probably, over the years, got myself out of the teaching a lot more as the research funds have come in. (Mary (IP-F5))

There are also women who have the reverse profile with research or leadership dominating their work duties:

I have been quite successful there [in research grants and publishing]. As I said because of my Head of School roles [emphasis added], I am not a kind of publishing machine or any of that kind of pure academic stuff. My record is pretty good. I don’t think there is discrimination in that regard, I think publishing is published on its merits although I know there is research to say otherwise but with blind reviews I think that is pretty okay and I think that grant process is pretty reasonable as well, almost impossible but pretty reasonable. (Pamela (IP-F4))

Either research or leadership can form the basis for promotion (e.g., Dany, Louvel, & Valette, 2011). However, so too can excellence in teaching and learning according to Pamela (IP-F4):

So I didn’t ever build that kind of traditional technical professor type career and my promotions have been on the basis of excellence in teaching and learning and I think because of leadership roles I was doing. I don’t think it [not having opportunity for things like overseas collaboration due to young children] has hindered my progress, I went from Level A to E in 12 years so that is pretty good progress but it is certainly not a traditional career. (Pamela (IP-F4))

Our results are consistent with other studies that report that women teach, mentor students, and engage in pastoral care duties, while men tend to undertake research that leads to publications (Bagilhole & White, 2003; Boreham, Western, Baxter, Dever, & Laffan, 2008; Thornton, 2013). However, there are indications that times are changing and the negatives of overload or imbalance in one aspect of academic work might be replaced by the positives of a strategic focus on teaching, research, or leadership and service.

6.3.3 Inhibitors: Academic Environment Influences Negative Discrimination

The responses by WPs about negative discrimination against women were overwhelming. In regard to promotion, it is problematic because it affects women’s career advancement. Although discriminatory practices are prohibited by legislation in Australian workplaces, women reported that they continued to experience open and latent discrimination.

Open discrimination is characterized by bullying (Lisa (S-F505)), harassment (Melanie (S-F243), Lindsay (S-F322)), sexist comments (Megan (S-F206)), gender-biased communication downplaying women’s capabilities (Katrina (S-F319)), being overlooked or ignored (Geraldine (S-F372)), or by being asked to do work not expected of men (Janet (S-F34)):

Recently subjected to verbal bullying [emphasis added] that is unlikely to have happened had I been male. (Lisa (S-F505))

A male academic colleague openly harassed me [emphasis added] about receiving research grants and reducing my teaching responsibilities. EEO addressed the issue. (Melanie (S-F243))

Method of recruitment, and blatant [sexist] statements [emphasis added] about ‘dick size’ etc. (but not restricted to). (Megan (S-F206))

Male lecturers telling PhD students that women were better at teaching, but not ‘tough enough’ to supervise and provide disciplined feedback and support for PhD research [emphasis added]. (Katrina (S-F319))

Asked to get coffee for members of a committee as I was only female [emphasis added]. Open discrimination too painful and I don’t wish to reflect on it any more. (Janet (S-F34))

The latter comment by Janet (S-F34)) that “Open discrimination too painful and I don’t wish to reflect on it any more” provides some insight into the distress that discrimination causes women.

Latent discrimination is more subtle and impacts women through resistance to appointments (Katrina (S-F319)) and a lack of respect from colleagues (Emma (IP-F2)), both senior and junior (Louise S-F119)):

… senior university administrators and managers are looking for strong, positive academics with an understanding of management. So you can get promoted to a senior role, but the colleagues around you, often long established, don’t accept the ‘newbie’ in their midst. Mostly male colleagues immediately around the newly promoted person use passive resistance effectively to diminish that person’s ability to achieve things [emphasis added]. (Katrina (S-F319))

I do think there is some subtle sexism [emphasis added] in there, especially in Nursing which is incredibly female dominated. One example, and this has happened to me a few times, is when people get their title, you know Doctor or Professor or something, and I would get nothing, I get Nurse or something like that. I remember when I was at [Name of University] I got my PhD and there were 3 of us, 2 males and me and they both had Doctor in front of their name and I didn’t have anything and I said I don’t care what you do so long as you’re consistent. I think they took theirs off rather than put mine on [emphasis added]. (Emma (IP-F2))

Some people, male and female, junior and senior, take instruction and direction from women, and the exercise of authority by women badly, and this can make the position more challenging for women in authority [emphasis added]. (Louise (S-F119))

These comments reflect the complexity of relationships within academia and how women can experience discrimination.

Women can play an active role in discrimination by facilitating men’s performance and endorsing their perceived authority (Kelly (S-F109)), by discouraging women (Cheryl (S-F324)) or even working against other women’s success (Tara (S-F277)):

Men are customarily treated as if they already have authority (whether they do or not) and women facilitate this by helping them get there [emphasis added] (e.g., by assuming they are in control already, by taking notes at meetings for them, by organising life for them, etc.). (Kelly (S-F109))

Some female managers actively discourage others (Men have been more supportive). (Cheryl (S-F324))

As there are relatively few women in positions of authority, it is not always the ‘glass ceiling’ that prevents women from achieving positions of authority, but the ‘glass stiletto’ – women preventing women from succeeding! (Tara (S-F277))

“The glass stiletto” (Tara) refers to the actions of those women who could support women but do the reverse and make it more difficult for them to succeed. The following two excerpts illustrate how the glass stiletto can be applied. In both cases, the supervisors appeared to be threatened by their supervisees:

The first boss I had we had a very good relationship up until I got my Masters degree [emphasis added] and she did not have a Masters degree. … her attitude to me changed completely [emphasis added]. It was not at all supportive. I was a senior lecturer and there was another senior lecturer employed and it may or may not have been coincidence but then she started to be really supportive of him and give him the opportunities … She actually said to me you might have qualifications but you don’t have my life experience and it wasn’t said in a positive way, like I can help you get there sort of thing. It was sort of like, well you know your place girl [emphasis added]. (Emma (IP-F2))

I was overlooked for promotion and positions of authority (until I changed institutions) by an older woman who, I believe, felt threatened by me. My experience of discrimination has been from both sexes [emphasis added] (I have also had great bosses of both sexes), but the most active and overt discrimination came from a female boss. (Naomi (S-F316))

Feeling threatened appears to invoke “queen bee” behavior where the queen is protective and defensive of her own position in the academy (Bronstein, 2001) (see also Sect.  3.6.1). Women who experience this form of discrimination have to decide how to manage it and consider the longer-term impact on their career. In some cases, leaving might be the best option (Naomi (S-F316)).

Underpinning negative discrimination is a double standard where women and men are treated differently. Below, Geraldine (S-F372) referred to the assumption that she is junior to men of the same age. She also makes the point that senior management use different criteria when describing women and men of the same rank. The terms “dedicated” and “enthusiastic” describe men in terms of their commitment to being the ideal academic (Thornton, 2013). By contrast, “bubbly” and “excitable” are terms not typically associated with a serious academic and provide no indication about the commitment of the woman to academia:

Women are perceived to be weaker/less able. I think it is innate. I am always perceived to be junior to male colleagues of the same age and equal or even lesser rank. This has happened to me on numerous occasions, especially by university management. Tall males will always be seen as superior to short females. I am only 5′2″, which also affects perceptions. My senior management have referred to me, in my presence, as “bubbly” and “excitable” [emphasis added], terms I know they would never use for male colleagues of the same age and rank, who are referred to as “dedicated” and “enthusiastic”. I often wish I was either taller, or had grey hair – anything to try and achieve some measure of respect [emphasis added]. I find that it is much harder to earn respect, despite performance, than my male colleagues. (Geraldine (S-F372))

Further, Geraldine’s (S-F372) wish to be taller or older also highlights attributes that she thinks are accorded respect that are not necessarily aligned to merit.

Two notable points emerged from the data. First, gender-based stereotypes and the associated discrimination appear to be firmly entrenched in academia (Leslie (S-F180)). The implication of such stereotyping is that, irrespective of merit, women and men are positioned differently in the academy (Jasmine (S-F384)) and are subject to different processes that are favorable to men (Julia (S-F121)):

Gender stereotypes are still rampant [emphasis added]. For women, being bullied, put down, your work demeaned, ignored or diminished is routine. Being a woman means you have to be twice as good as men and it takes twice as long to get on. (Leslie (S-F180))

Males automatically take leadership in discussions/decisions [emphasis added] and are deferred to. Males [are] expected by others to be leaders e.g., on phone call – assumption that a female voice is the male professor’s secretary. (Jasmine (S-F384))

When I was acting Head of Department I had to apply, address selection criteria and be interviewed. This is not the case for next year’s HOD – they were simply appointed and no one else invited [emphasis added]. (Julia (S-F121))

The comments on stereotyping indicate that legislation has been insufficient to break the hold of the male tradition on the academy, and ways of addressing discrimination in accord with legislation appear to be “toothless.” For example, Geraldine (S-F372) reported that while legislation provided the means to address discrimination, the process might exacerbate rather than ameliorate the situation:

I have in the past filed a complaint [emphasis added] against a male colleague. The ensuing process was long-lived and unsatisfactory, which has now been acknowledged by the university and by outside consultants hired by the university. The discrimination continues today and the university are [sic] now trying to take action (hence the consultants). (Geraldine (S-F372))

Hence, women need to proceed cautiously if they wish to advance to the professoriate because despite legislation, they appear to be unprotected.

Second, women are effectively in a no-win situation regarding other people’s perceptions of their actions. Belinda (S-F323) used the example of the expectation to be “motherly,” stating “but you are damned if you do [be motherly] and damned if you don’t. You get accused of being patronizing, but if you’re too soft and caring you’re ineffectual.” Naomi (S-F316)) reported that the no-win scenario also emerges when women and men undertake the same actions but are perceived differently for these actions:

Still feel that a woman has to do more and somehow represent herself differently in order to be taken seriously (that is, her emotions are read differently (anger instead of assertiveness [emphasis added], raised voice as hysteria etc.), so often repressed; humour is signified as lack of ability to take things seriously etc. etc. When a tough decision is made (e.g., retrenching a staff member, the woman is a bitch; the man is simply making the tough call [emphasis added]. Admittedly, a lot of this reading depends on the dignity, integrity or lack of that a person displays, regardless of their sex. (Naomi (S-F316))

The caveat expressed by Naomi (S-F316)) indicates that some people have an awareness of how gender stereotypes can be enacted in everyday academic life.

Understanding gender stereotypes and how they can affect academic life explains the advice that Kristen (S-F273) received in a course: “Do your job 10 x better than a man and act like a man.” Given the responses from participants about negative discrimination, this advice recognizes that academia is male-oriented and to advance in the academic hierarchy women need to be successful in that world. Though presumably wise, such advice denies women the right to participate as equals in a supposedly merit-based world (Thornton, 2013). Thus, the traditionally masculine culture of universities is still troubled by informal and powerful male networks (Thomas & Davies, 2002), gendered career structures (O’Connor, 2000), and male hegemony (White, 2001). These examples attest to the presence in Australian universities of what has been called the “binary oppositions and hierarchies” (Bradley, 2008, p. 149) that characterize western ways of thinking (the metaphysics of presence) (see Sect.  5.2). The excerpts show the existence of particular knowledge where a “superior term [male/men/masculinity] will be identified with pure presence and an inferior [female/women/femininity] with the mediation or loss of that presence” (p. 149). As a way of exposing the internal constitution of these hierarchical structures, Derrida (1976) suggested inhabiting such structures by “borrowing all the strategic and economic resources of subversion from the old structure” (p. 24). Borrowing is aimed at showing the instability or contingency of western ways of hierarchical thinking and using these contingencies for reconstructive purposes. The Boys’ Club

A key reason for negative discrimination was the “Boys’ Clubculture” in universities. The prevalence and reported influence of the Boys’ Club on women’s career progression are addressed in the next chapter (Chap.  7). Problems with Positive Discrimination

Positive discrimination or affirmative action is intended to redress discriminatory practices encountered by women (Noon, 2010). However, three downsides emerge from these practices, which individually or collectively can inhibit career progression.

First, positive discrimination can raise doubts as to whether the appointment of a woman was due to merit or gender. This doubt may be raised by the woman herself (Danielle (S-F181)) or may be interpreted from the adverse behavior of others (Glenda (S-F315)):

I often feel like a “token” female on committees etc…I should be on them because of what I have to contribute (and I think that is recognised), but there is an element of “we need a senior female, so let’s get [name]”. (Danielle (S-F181))

I have been given opportunities to play a major role on committees and management of the University as the “token female” - this has been very good for building my career. However I have encountered snide comments from male colleagues [emphasis added]. (Glenda (S-F315)):

These doubts might have a basis if gender representation overrides or appears to override merit in academic appointments:

I believe in equal opportunity for all. I get concerned when there is positive discrimination or when gender is used as an excuse to be less competent. (Layla (S-F67)

I have seen both discrimination against capable women and positive discrimination in that a perfectly qualified man was overlooked for a position (by both sexes) which was then given to a woman who then abused her authority and ‘power’ to the detriment of the faculty, its staff and ultimately, the university. (Naomi (S-F316))

Further, appointment to a position or committee does not guarantee women will be able to readily participate. If a woman is on a committee due to her gender, it is possible that there will be a lack of respect by other committee members, which may do a disservice to women colleagues rather than a service. Preferential hiring based on gender rather than merit can result in women in academia being viewed as less than men and relationships between women and men deteriorating (Kimura, 1997). This disservice has also been identified in the corporate sector (Browne, 2014). However, notwithstanding the potential disadvantages of being the token woman, there can be benefits to women. For example, Gheus (2015) argues for being the token academic woman in philosophy activities:

… [it can] make professional philosophy more women-friendly, [because it] promotes fairness in the long term, [women] may be able to add value [emphasis in original], [and women] have a chance to change at least a few people’s minds about the merits of your [sic] work and in general about women’s ability to contribute to philosophy. (p. 174)

Gheus’ (2015) point about needing token women in the short term for long-term fairness and respect for their work is an attempt to persuade women to take on some “token” roles. However, in tandem, there needs to be guidance for men about how to work with women to ensure a collegial work climate.

Second, due to the need for gender representation, women in male-dominated disciplines can be requested to undertake substantial service on committees which can reduce the time available for other work and which Molly (S-F390) described as “a blessing and a curse” due to the resultant overwork:

I end up on everything, and that can be to my detriment b/c [because] I am not writing articles etc., but being a token senior female. (Molly (S-F390))

Being female in a male dominated faculty can be a blessing and a curse – i.e., the token female [emphasis added], but token female roles can provide experience and access to decision making forums not available to males at same level. (Molly (S-F390))

The overwork of academic women in representative roles in Australia has been reported elsewhere (e.g., Soliman, 1998). Hence, care should be exercised in the workload of representative roles that women undertake.

Third, women’s lack of support for positive discrimination initiatives might result in them not participating in processes which might be gender biased or promote gender bias:

I was told (by a colleague) to apply for a professorship at my university in South Africa because “they needed to appoint female professors”. I decided not to apply as I wanted to get the post on my merits not just because I was female [emphasis added]. (Cassidy (S-F404))

Strongly against affirmative action in any guise, strongly against promotion of women simply to tick a box, strongly for free and fair evaluation of individuals on the basis of achievement, not politics. I have never joined in any “women” only activities or events and never will [emphasis added]. I simply want to be recognised for my considerable achievements in the same way as every other successful academic. (Cassidy (S-F404))

The refusal to participate in a process is one way women can combat being marked as an “‘affirmative action’ case” (van den Brink & Benschop, 2012, p. 88). Thus, the concept of positive discrimination is not simplistic. There are complex unintended as well as intended consequences. Further, the women who it purports to represent do not necessarily agree with it in principle.

The inhibitors related to positive discrimination are not confined to academia but are reflected in the corporate sector (e.g., Browne, 2014). Thus, the notion of using positive discrimination to address or overcome the effects of negative discrimination is too simplistic and warrants further research. Problems with Merit-Based Assessment

The intent of merit-based assessment is to overcome the gender-bias in decision-making processes that are unfavorable to women. However, how merit is judged is dependent on those in power. Helen (S-F9) explained her lack of confidence that a merit process could be free of gender bias in a male-dominated panel:

Men are dominant in many committees hence women are in the minority. It does not sometimes occur to men how strong the ‘boys club’ is. I recently was confronted by the introduction of a new board of 7 men. It did nothing to inspire any confidence that they would give women a fair hearing on any matter. (Helen (S-F9))

Helen’s (S-F9) concerns are valid because as Thornton (2013) cautions, merit is associated with “the ideal academic,” that is, “benchmark man” (p. 127), and hence is subject to the dominant views of merit. Nevertheless, the higher education landscape continues to change and has been accompanied by further evolution of the ideal academic, but not necessarily an uncoupling of benchmark masculinity from merit:

In the current global hypercompetitive environment, the ideal academic, or ‘post-academic’, is a high-flying technopreneur dedicated to his or her career; that is, an international super star with business acumen who can generate capital through knowledge transfer. While benchmark masculinity need not formally be the primary criterion of appointment, it continues to be inextricably intertwined with the prevailing construction of merit, just as it always has been. (Thornton, 2013, p. 138)

With the advent of women achieving milestones associated with the ideal academic, men in senior positions may attempt to protect their territory (Thornton, 2013). This could prompt a shift from those in power to re-masculinize the academy by reconstituting the ideal academic (Thornton, 2013).

Merit-based assessment, though a catalyst in some instances (Sect. 6.2.3), might in Thornton’s (2013) terms be merely “a mirage” (p. 127), which gives the semblance of fairness while in reality maintains the status quo. Women (and some men) invariably cannot measure up to benchmark man. Hence, from an equity perspective, the status of benchmark man in the academy needs to be reduced and relegated to that of a straw man. Destabilizing benchmark man requires continued recognition of women as a presence in the academy and of disrupting the normative characteristics of benchmark man in everyday academic work as a way of continually unsettling “the order and stability of the hierarchy” (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012, p. 28) . Rewriting structures rests on working in spaces where there are possibilities to produce change in normative constructions such as benchmark man that constrain women and others who do not measure up. What should be reinscribed in this unsettling “work in progress” is a more gender-inclusive concept of academic merit that recognizes the life courses of many women in terms of childbearing and child-rearing and the positions from which they attempt to compete with male counterparts.

6.3.4 Inhibitors: Social Influences Isolation

Feelings of isolation were reported by over 50% of women and men survey respondents prior to becoming a professor (57%, n = 491) and since becoming a professor (50%, n = 490). No statistically significant effects were noted in the survey data. However, women are particularly vulnerable to isolation in academia due to the male-oriented culture (Duguid, 2011; Maranto & Griffin, 2011; Smith & Calasanti, 2005; Soliman, 1998) even at senior levels (Bronstein, 2001; Ward, 2003), and isolation can be a reason for women leaving an institution (Gardner, 2012). Attention is needed to feelings of isolation because it contributes to the low representation of women in the professoriate (Diezmann & Grieshaber, 2013; Ward, 2003).

Our findings suggest that women participants felt isolated for two reasons. First, academia was perceived to be a secretive and distrustful culture with privileged access to communication:

I think hindrances are – there is a lot of cloak and dagger [emphasis added], and I think a major one is intellectual insecurity. People keeping information secret and I think, well, I know a bit, you know a bit, work together and now we will know a lot. Very cloak and dagger [emphasis added]. In our workplace people don’t mention they are going for promotion, they don’t mention they have a book contract or they have an article to be published. … I am in charge of community engagement and I say, why are we worrying about that when we don’t have a community ourselves? I perceive it is from the top down – don’t share because somebody might steal it [emphasis added]. (Brenda (FG-F19))

Lack of access to channels of communication about what is happening in different areas/fields. (Nina (S-F446))

Secrecy, lack of access to communication and distrust can be a way of protecting hierarchical status and working to keep others separate from the “apex … of the organizational pyramid” (Thornton, 2013, p. 128). In Spivak’s (1993) terms of center-margin politics, the academic center or apex protects its hierarchy by recognizing women and Others as authentic members of the center, but as outside the apex of power, that is, as the margin within the center, and therefore outside in the teaching machine.

Second, isolation resulted from a “lack of academic mentoring” (Nina (S-F446)) and “lack of role models and experience with female leadership” (Samantha (S-F223)). Chloe (S-F374) explained that the lack of female colleagues, leadership, and relationships resulted in her feeling different because she did not have an alternative vision of how a female might undertake academic duties: “I don’t want to do this a male’s way, and there aren’t many alternative role models from which to draw; I feel different.” Her reference to feeling “different” emphasized her position as an outsider to the group. She was caught between the known way that men work and the unknown way that she might work as a woman. Thus, this WP lacked a sense of belonging to either group. Women in similar situations might benefit from mentoring (Blackaby, Booth, & Frank, 2005; Gardiner et al., 2007; Morley, 2013) and the availability of role models, particularly women in nontraditional fields (Bennett, 2011). Tension Between Personal and Professional Life

The clash between personal and professional lives was reported by WPs in both the survey and interview responses. Consistent with traditional versions of the nuclear family and gendered forms of discrimination in universities (see Ward, 2003), two female survey respondents commented that their careers were spoken about in the academy as less important than their husbands’ careers:

I heard that [in] one selection committee; the opinion was expressed that I wouldn’t need a job as my husband was a professor. (Olivia (S-F327))

It was just simply assumed that I would be content to stay at the same Uni as my husband and take any job that would come along [emphasis added]. (Kimberley (S-F153))

The impact of gender on child-rearing responsibilities was reported by numerous women who talked about the challenge of combining an academic career with having children. Women have interrupted careers due to childbearing and are responsible for a greater proportion of child-rearing (van Anders, 2004; Ward & Wolf-Wendel, 2004). In the data reported from the current study, child-rearing responsibilities impacted on women’s time for research and scholarship, their career progression, and their ability to travel overseas. One interview participant also commented that caring for elderly parents impacted on her career:

There is an assumption that once you have children that your academic career will stall [emphasis added]. Older male colleagues said to me that I will not want to do research anymore, since I will be preoccupied with my children. I felt I needed to prove them wrong and worked too hard to show them that I could still get ARC grants once I had my children. (Amanda (S-F30))

The years spent child rearing are years spent not publishing. (Bridget (S-F344))

The male academics of the School went on a visit to Chinese universities. The two female academics could not go because of children, responsibilities etc [emphasis added]. (Tina (S-F124))

It seems to me that a lot does fall on the woman. I think women have an extra burden when it comes to parents [emphasis added]; it just seems to happen that way. (Betty (FG-F8))

The perception of incompatibility between being an academic and a mother was highlighted by comments about the support from supervisors:

Many years ago, my female HOS [Head of School] recommended in an informal discussion that I didn’t have a third child because it would affect my career. (Isabelle (S-F363))

Women also expressed regret at the impact of their career on family life:

I now regret taking on this challenge [to be a strong researcher] as I feel that by proving my point I deprived myself and my children of valuable time together. (Amanda (S-F30))

The challenge of raising a family and the impact that had on the academic career of women was acknowledged by men.

[Often] women sacrifice their career for family reasons [emphasis added] but that is a decision they take consciously. (David (S-M283))

My impression is that most of the senior male academics have played a minor role in bringing up children and that most of the senior female academics do not have any children. (George (S-M519))

The difficulty of balancing family and work commitments is widely established (e.g., Eagly & Carli, 2007; Penney et al., 2015; Su, Johnson, & Bozeman, 2015; Thanacoody, Bartram, Barker, & Jacobs, 2006). The interview participants provided some insight into how women attempted to balance work and families but also acknowledged that there was a heavy cost:

I work my time [emphasis added] so my husband takes the children in the morning and he still does, we have 10 and 12 year olds, and I leave every day about 2:45. (Melissa (FG-F18))

I would also put the slant on it too that for me it was about having the energy or the headspace to progress my career [emphasis added] when the energy was with the children, the home and the teaching and everything else. (Helen (FG-F9))

Interview participants also commented that there was a need for domestic duties to be shared by their partners and for their partners to be supportive of their careers:

For my husband, he didn’t even bother to tell us what time he was coming home. He didn’t think about who was feeding them [children], who is putting them to bed, that kind of stuff. There was an element of stress around having to sort out the children as well as having a career [emphasis added]. I think that came from a person not being assertive enough about sharing responsibilities in the home. (Donna (FG-F10))

I think you work around the children and family issue. I would have moved universities except I have a husband who refused to move anywhere else in Australia. (Nancy (FG-F5))

In sum, social influences impact academic women’s career progression. Hence, attention is needed to reduce the tension between personal and professional life and address isolation.

6.4 Conclusion

The major influences reported by participants as catalysts for or inhibitors of career progression are shown in Table 6.1, categorized by the five types of influences identified earlier (Sect.  3.1). Participants identified four types of catalytic influences and four types of inhibitory influences.
Table 6.1

Types of influences: catalysts for and inhibitors of career advancement

Types of influences



Individual influences

Enjoyment and esteem

Lack of confidence

Academic work influences

Steps to success

Workload imbalance or overload

Academic environment influences

Professional learning opportunities

Opportunities to undertake representative roles

Negative discrimination

The culture of the Boys’ Club (see Chap.  7)


Support for women entering or reentering the university

Problems with positive discrimination


Flexibility of work practices


Merit-based assessments

Problems of merit-based assessments

Social influences

Mentoring for success



Tension between personal and professional life

Resource influences



Although there are about the same number of catalysts and inhibitors on Table 6.1, the catalysts do not overcome the inhibitors. It takes only one inhibitor to have a serious effect on a woman’s career, irrespective of the catalysts. For example, professional learning opportunities (catalyst) will have little effect if WPs experiencenegative discrimination (inhibitor), and these negative experiences go unchallenged and unchecked. Women recognize this tension between policy and practice, with one respondent cautioning women to “tread very carefully” (Tina (S-F124)) in their academic life. A number of these inhibitors are interrelated and appear to be deeply embedded in university cultures. Hence, they are likely to be highly resistant to change. One way to address inhibitory issues is through female role models who have demonstrated that despite encountering these inhibitors they have been able to succeed and reach the professoriate. Importantly, to support the achievements of women, there is a need to foster equal employment opportunities and mentoring activities, address negative discrimination, and the culture of the Boys’ Club (see Chap.  7).

The academic culture is highly influential in academic women’s career success. However, of considerable importance is the academic woman herself. All women exhibited the characteristics of academic survivors in a male world. Some women appeared to wait for fate to present them with ad hocopportunities, while others set about creating opportunities for themselves. To achieve more women in the professoriate, there is a need to teach women about how to achieve success, to inform men about the benefits of women at all levels of academia including the professoriate, and to alert all about the catalysts for and inhibitors of career advancement for women.

Concomitantly there is a need to establish ways to leverage the catalysts and shift the outcome of the academic journey from “survive” to “thrive” to ensure that women have the capability and confidence to perform well once they reach the professoriate. Some women emerged from their professorial experience scathed but content that they had reached a significant milestone.

Overall, women’s experiences in the academy are metaphorically like a game of Snakes and Ladders. The various snakes (Inhibitors) and ladders (Catalysts) that women encounter can advance or stall their academic journey towards the professoriate (Fig. 6.2). In some cases, women might even go backward in their academic journey, for example, if they have to change jobs due to a limited contract position, not achieving tenure, or a partner’s relocation. The game of Snakes and Ladders has provided a useful metaphor for understanding some of the advantages and disadvantages involved in the PhD journey (Dickie, 2011). It also provides further insight into why some women reach the professoriate and others do not. For some women, the ladders might outweigh the effects of the snakes, but other women might experience the reverse. Hence, progression towards the professoriate is influenced by the particular catalysts and inhibitors women experience in their journeys, the timing, and the balance among them.
Fig. 6.2

Academic snakes and ladders


  1. 1.

    The first letter indicates whether the data source was the survey (S), focus group interview (FG), individual phone interview (IP) or individual email interview (IE). The second letter indicates if the academic was female (F) or male (M). Note that all focus group and individual interviewees were female. A one- to three-digit code was also assigned to participants in the surveys (N = 520), focus group interviews (n = 21), and individual phone and email interviews (n = 8).

  2. 2.

    Identifiers: The first letter indicates whether the data source was the survey (S), focus group interview (FG), individual phone interview (IP), or individual email interview (IE). The second letter indicates if the academic was female (F) or male (M). A one- to three-digit code was also assigned to participants in the surveys (N = 520), focus group interviews (n = 21), and individual phone and email interviews (n = 8).

  3. 3.

    ATN’s Women’s Executive Development Program

  4. 4.

    Early career researcher.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carmel Diezmann
    • 1
  • Susan Grieshaber
    • 2
  1. 1.Queensland University of TechnologyKelvin GroveAustralia
  2. 2.La Trobe UniversityBundooraAustralia

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