International Women's Day 2019 - Discussing the key challenges facing women in academia

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This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BalanceforBetter. Considering the current fractured state of political and social discourse across many areas of the globe, it’s more imperative than ever that we strive for a more gender-balanced and inclusive society—none more so than in the world of academia.

SAGE Ocean was formed on the belief that social science has a critical role to play in shaping the future of society for the better, and this has been evident through the people and community we’ve encountered and the research they’re so rigorously testing to cultivate a more informed society.

The cross-disciplinary nature of computational social science and the opportunity to address current social science questions in different ways provide solid foundations for rebuilding the academic landscape, making it inclusive to all and equalizing the gender imbalance. With this in mind, we posed questions to researchers working across the social sciences about the key challenges facing women in academia.

How do we nurture an academic landscape that is more accessible to women?

Sarah Shugars, doctoral candidate studying American political behavior, political networks, and methodology in Northeastern’s Network Science program.

The challenges faced by women and gender minorities in academia goes beyond a “pipeline problem.” In many cases, good scholars are actively forced from the academy by cultures of harassment and systems designed for people with power and privilege. Nurturing a more accessible academic landscape, then, means critically evaluating and rebuilding these systems; working to make academia more inclusive for all. In a practical sense, this means genuinely listening to concerns that are raised, learning from other people’s perspectives, and working collaboratively to make our antiquated systems better. This work goes beyond the dimension of gender, and seeks to make space for all who have traditionally been barred from academic life. The key thing to realize here is that “the way it has always been” is—by definition—imperfect, since those past strategies were developed around a relatively narrow sub-sample of the population and cannot be expected to generalize. As we get more data, as we learn from different types of academic experiences, we ought to adjust our thinking and our systems to ensure that no one’s scholarship is being systematically excluded.

Laura K. Nelson, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Northeastern University.

The stalled revolution was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild way back in 1989. In the 1970s and 1980s women changed. In particular, there was an influx of women into the workforce. But the cultural understanding of women’s place in the home, and the relationship between the workplace and family life, did not change. The resulting tension meant that, while women were working more, there was, and remains today, a persistent gendered pay gap, promotion gap (particularly in academia), and housework gap. There was, in other words, a stalled revolution.

Thirty years after Hochschild coined this phrase here we are, still talking about it.

International Women’s Day, is the perennial opportunity to revisit this question. What will it take to unstall the stalled revolution?

Megan Squire, Professor of Computer Science, Elon University.

As a computer scientist, I read your prompt and my heart just fell - our discipline is one of the worst offenders when it comes to gender problems, pipeline problems, mentoring issues, recruitment problems, retention problems, sexual discrimination in both academia and industry, gender- and race-based wage gaps, etc. From a recruitment perspective, the top chart on this WIRED article pretty much says it all. I guess there's just so much to say and so much work to be done, I don't even know where to start. I think it could be a full-time job to track all the research and articles on the topic of women in computer science and software engineering!

The discipline as a whole is trying to tackle it though: industry and academic groups throughout CS have launched innumerable panels, workshops, special issues, cover stories, interest groups, web sites, mentoring programs - and so on - all bemoaning "the women problem" and "the diversity problem" and mulling possible solutions. For a while there was a joke among women computer scientists that if you are a woman in CS, there is a 100% chance you will eventually be asked to serve on a panel about "Women in CS". It's kind of just an ongoing sad situation for which there is - so far - no silver bullet solution, yet we are facing a massive need for expertise and a real sense of urgency. Most of us recognize that it is wrong to have only a fraction of the population (white men) ready to work in the digital world, and that we need more people from more backgrounds preparing to work on tomorrow's solutions. Lots of folks in CS are trying various things to help, but no one knows what the best combination of solutions is yet - or if there even is one - or how to get those solutions widely adopted. But we are trying, "bit by bit".

Lily Fesler is a fourth year PhD student in economics of education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and an Institute of Education Sciences fellow.

Recent research in economics demonstrates some major challenges facing women in academia. Evidence suggests that there is a higher publication threshold for articles submitted by women than by men, that women receive less credit in the tenure process for their co-authored publications than men do, and that gender neutral parental leave policies increase tenure rates for men and decrease tenure rates for women. Economists who participate in the Economic Job Market Rumors forum are also more likely to discuss female economists’ physical appearance or personal information, and male economists’ academic or professional characteristics. These challenges combined can make academia (and economics in particular) a challenging place for women to succeed and feel respected.


Diyi Yang, PhD Student, Language Technologies Institute, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University.

First, I think more female faculty and leaders will make STEM more accessible to women and benefit students. It not only promotes diversity and inclusion to the teaching and research but also enables students especially female students to find role models.

Second, conference travel grants from school and companies are needed to help female (not overrepresent) and male students to participate in academic conferences. Those days, in most research areas and schools, students are only allowed to attend conferences if their papers are accepted.

More workshops targeted at promoting diversity are also great opportunities for making academic more accessible to women, such as Women in Machine Learning and Widening NLP, which I am a co-organizer this year.  

Career advice, guidance from different levels of female researchers to female in academia can also be helpful, which can take the form of panels, mentor sessions, or talks during workshops/conferences.

What are the key challenges facing women in academia?

Kimberly A. Houser, Assistant Professor, Oklahoma State University.

Despite over half of all PhDs being awarded to women, the percentage of female tenured faculty hovers between 20% - 33% in the EU and US, and falls to as low as 5% in fields like engineering, demonstrating the difficulty women face moving up in academia. In many European countries these numbers are even more discouraging. Women occupy very few senior academic (Grade A) positions in Belgium (15.6%), Germany (17.3%), the United Kingdom (17.5%), France (19.3%), Switzerland (19.3%), and Sweden (23.8%). When women are hired, they are generally funneled into lower-paying non-tenure-track positions. The obstacles for women are present at all stages, including hiring, letters of recommendation, student evaluations, peer reviews, awarding of grants, funding, requests for service, and promotion to tenure. In addition, the pay gap is significant. In the UK, for example, female academics earn 12% less than their male counterparts.

Diyi Yang, PhD Student, Language Technologies Institute, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University.

I personally think mentorship support and a lack of role models are two major barriers in academia. During my PhD studies,  I was reluctant to seek support and in most cases had no confidence in myself, and for me, the advise-meetings between advisers and students help a lot. However, this could be a place where female students fail to receive support, especially with different perspectives and experiences.

One subtle feeling  - it seems that we need to prove our competence in order to not be categorized into gender stereotypes, especially in STEM.

I also think there seems a lack of role models, and limited access to information around career paths, advancement or promotions.

There are other issues facing women in academia, such as being pregnant/a mother while working full time as a PhD student, work-life balance, etc.

Sarah Shugars, doctoral candidate studying American political behavior, political networks, and methodology in Northeastern’s Network Science program.

As an academic, I expect to be regularly critiqued for the substance of my ideas and the quality of my methods. This is good for science and it is how we all learn and improve. However, far too often, the possibility that I have the capacity to contribute intellectually is simply dismissed out of hand or the harshness of the criticism I receive exceeds what is conducive to scholarly debate. On numerous occasions I have had men yell over me while I try to explain my work, I’ve had men simply walk away when I introduce myself, I have been told that my presence indicates a lowering of the bar, and I have been sexually harassed in academic spaces. These are the things that make me want to leave academia. To be clear, there are many things I love about the ethos of academic pursuits: I love getting feedback, I love learning from people who are smarter than me, and, if I’m being honest with myself, I even love the stress and neuroses that come with trying to be successful in academic life. But to be constantly harassed and degraded, to have it made it so perfectly clear that a significant portion of the community will never even consider me to have intellectual potential – that is the most disappointing challenge of all.

I share these experiences because they are not just mine – these stories are endemic amongst women in the academy. Non-binary and genderqueer people often face even worse harassment and regularly have their very existence questioned. Furthermore, gender is but one dimension along which people may experience exclusion and discrimination within academic communities. When academia protects and even rewards the scholars who perpetuate such harassment, it only further emphasizes the narrative of intellectual inferiority: we mourn the careers of abusive scholars more than we mourn the loss of the many people they push out.

Aleksandra Berditchevskaia, Senior Researcher for the Centre of Collective Intelligence Design.

I feel there is still work to do in identifying the sources of systemic bias and (sometimes unconscious) inequality. There’s been much media attention recently on discrimination in the hiring process, the gender pay gap and the stages of academic careers at which female representation drops off. This growing evidence base will help us to be more targeted and deliberate in our choices when it comes to designing research processes and programmes in academia. 

I like that in the tech community we're talking more and more about algorithmic audits, fairness and transparency (based on the work of Timnit Gebru, Joy Buolamwini and others in the FAT ML community). This ethics-driven approach to tool design should also apply to the structural elements of academia. We need to get better at interrogating the common processes we use in the workplace. One example is making it easier for individuals with childcare responsibilities to attend conferences. A recent episode of the podcast This Week in Machine Learning about Human Centered Design discussed the difference in how diverse groups made contributions in meetings. How might we design processes that better facilitate the exchange of ideas? We must also be mindful that the introduction of certain tools (such as automatic transcription devices) may inhibit individuals from underrepresented backgrounds from speaking out.

Incentive structures in research aren't necessarily configured to encourage diversity, but there is a growing community of academics and policy makers supporting and recognising responsible and inclusive research and innovation practices. It strikes me that some of the research communities that I work with have a very high proportion of women - Citizen Science for example - while others, like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, have far fewer. Understanding what drives these differences will be vital in allowing us to reconfigure our academic system to make it more accessible to women and other underrepresented groups. I'm encouraged by the efforts of the ML community where we're seeing members of the Black in AI and Women in Machine Learning groups producing some of the most challenging and inspiring work in the field. 

What do you envisage the impact of increased gender diversity in academia be?

Sarah Shugars, doctoral candidate studying American political behavior, political networks, and methodology in Northeastern’s Network Science program.

While increased gender diversity is a good in its own right—representing increased diversity in perspectives and giving future scholars more opportunities to see themselves in academia—it can, perhaps, be better understood as an indicator rather as an outcome in itself. Existing gender disparities in academia are indicative of a system in which people are regularly bullied and harassed out of the field; they are indicative of a system in which anyone who falls outside a perceived cis, white, male norm is put at tremendous disadvantage. They are indicative of patterns of abusive and dismissive behavior which serve to keep a broken status quo in place and systematically silence some voices. This is why I suggest that levels gender diversity can be seen as an indicator rather than an outcome: a world in which academia has more gender diversity would be a world in which academia is less toxic. A world in which, quite simply—scholars are assessed by the quality of their scholarship.

Can you recommend any reading material around gender equality and addressing the gender balance?

Aleks Berditchevskaia, Senior Researcher, Centre for Collective Intelligence Design

Although it isn't explicitly focused on gender, I'm interested in the research on diversity coming from the collective intelligence community. For example, Anita Woolley's group at Carnegie Mellon has shown that more diverse teams perform better in problem-solving tasks, and that a mix of cognitive styles within a group and leads to improved team learning. The same group has recently published a paper looking in more detail at how diverse teams share information and how this impacts creativity

However, some of this research also shows that high cognitive style diversity can inhibit group cognition, so there is certainly still a lot to learn about how we can make working environments successful and creative while nurturing and including different perspectives.

Diyi Yang, PhD Student, Language Technologies Institute, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University.

There are some great opportunities such as scholarships like Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship and conference participation like Grace Hopper Celebration, Women in Machine Learning, Widening NLP, which may be helpful for female students in STEM.