Bridging the ‘other’ gender gap: career security in academia

By Roseanne Diab

Emeritus Professor, University of KwaZulu-Natal; Director, GenderInsite

The gender gap in academia manifests itself in many ways – through the gender gap in science, with fewer women enrolled in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) degrees; through the paucity of women in senior academic leadership positions; and through the gender pay gap.  It should come as no surprise, then, that there is also a gender gap around academic precarity, with women finding themselves on less secure career paths than their male counterparts.

Precarity is endemic to the higher education sector across the world, having arisen largely due to a steady erosion of state funding for higher education over many years in many countries. Junior or early-career researchers are most at risk within the sector, which perpetuates a type of apprenticeship system where they are employed on insecure or casual contracts. Not only does this affect their personal physical and mental health, but it undermines knowledge production at the early-career stage.

Upon closer inspection, however, one finds that there is ‘gendered precarity’, as well. Women are more likely to hold fixed-term or contract positions than men are, and they are over-represented in exclusively teaching-based positions, with many on fixed-term contracts. New results from the OECD International Survey of Scientific Authors (ISSA) shed further light on this gap. Findings from the survey show that  female corresponding authors of academic studies are more likely to be employed on fixed-term contracts, compared to their male counterparts, and this disparity is wider among young researchers (under the age of 35). As a result, women are more likely to end up in insecure career pathways, which ultimately affects their productivity and career progression.   

Illustration: Sylvain Fraccola, OECD

Writing this blog during the COVID-19 pandemic is particularly poignant, as global lockdowns have once again exposed the gender gap that exists in academia. Journal editors have reported a sharp decline in the number of submitted research articles from women, whereas the number of submissions from men have increased. Every day, I receive social media posts and cartoons of women literally balancing it all – the housework, the childcare and their research – and, once again, it is early-career women with young families who are most affected.

We all need to be aware of this reality and must make a conscious effort to prevent women from being disadvantaged in the work force yet again. This demands a broader cultural shift in which we all become more inclusive and respectful, and work towards equality for all.

Roseanne Diab is Emeritus Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Director of GenderInsite. She is also a member of the expert group of the OECD Global Science Forum project on reducing the precarity of research careers.

Learn more about the precarity of research careers in the upcoming OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook, which explores how science and innovation policymaking can tackle the major global challenges facing people and the planet. The 2020 OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook will be released later this year.  

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