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Mid-career Academic Women: Strategies, Choices and Motivation

By Dr Camille B. Kandiko Howson, Dr Kelly Coate and Dr Tania de St Croix, King’s Learning Institute, King’s College London.

Why do women continue to be under-represented in senior positions in higher education?1

Eighty per cent of professors in the UK are men, whereas the only category where academic women are in the majority is part-time non-managerial roles. Despite this, higher education institutions can often be complacent having a majority of female undergraduates and a few female professors2. Why do women succeed in higher education—but only to a certain point?

In this context, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education funded this research as a Small Development Project, ‘Mid-career academic women: strategies, choices and motivations’, as a Small Development Project. Using concept map mediated interviews this project explored how mid-career academic women strategise their career development, and what barriers they perceive.

Academic prestige as a gendered concept

Previous Leadership Foundation-funded projects on motivation have highlighted the role of prestige in hiring and promotion decisions. We use the term ‘prestige economy’3 to describe the collection of beliefs, values and behaviours that characterise and express what a group of people prizes highly. Evidence collected on publication rates, first author status and workload balance indicates that academic women find it harder to access the types of ‘currency’ that advance their career; we therefore consider prestige to be a gendered concept4.

Thirty women from nine different London universities interviewed were from a variety of disciplines with a concentration on natural sciences. Participants were allowed to self-select as being mid-career, and included a variety of job titles: lecturer, senior lecturer, reader, research associate, senior research fellow, senior investigator and school director, reflecting disciplinary norms, women’s non-standard career pathways and institutional differences.

Good practice recommendations

Support for mid-career women’s career development This project has led to an improved understanding of the trajectory of academic women’s careers. It reinforces the need for programmes to support and develop mid-career academic women as current and future leaders in their fields.

  • Targeted institutional support for the mid-career stage, including mentoring, career planning and role definition and advancement
  • Targeted research funding for the mid-career stage. With the concentration of research funding into large grants aimed at the professorial level and the additional focus on early-career grants and fellowships, many women felt the mid-career stage was left out
  • Fellowships and teaching breaks or reduced workloads for women returning from maternity or other leave
  • Valuing mid-career academic women

Many academic women spend the majority of their lives at the mid-career stage. Some mid-career academic women feel ‘stuck’ and undervalued, and some are concerned about their futures in academic life if they are not promoted. Good institutions and departments will think about how to ensure that all academics feel valued and listened to, and are given opportunities to develop themselves and their career. A number of institutional practices are necessary to ensure that talented and committed researchers and educators are not ‘lost’ to academia, simply because they do not aspire to – or are not in a position to – attain the most senior positions. With research being judged through the REF at the department level, this can provide a model for rewarding more holistic roles, often taken up by women.

  • Recognising and rewarding collective activities and success, not solely individual achievements
  • Proactive support and development that is not only promotion-focused
  • Proactive assessments of readiness for promotion. Many women feel the need to have “ticked all the boxes” to apply for promotion, or feel hesitant about applying
  • Consideration of workload balance amongst individuals and teams, and avoiding the gendered division of activities
  • Developing genuine and collaborative ways for communicating achievements and success, such as departmental newsletters, a culture of sharing news, and/or structured web pages enabling the communication of activities
  • Additional modes of recognition for essential work, including that which is collaborative and supports departmental and disciplinary cultures (such as personal tutoring, peer support, team leadership and outreach activities)

Prestige: Setting indicators of esteem and rewarding what matters

Women perceive high-status publications and substantial grant income to constitute prestige in the university. Other indicators of prestige included being invited to give keynote speeches at international conferences, editing journals and supervising PhD students. However, prestige is a gendered concept, and this research contributes to evidence that women find it harder to access the types of currency that advance their reputations.

Figure: Interviewees' concept maps

What motivated many women were traditional academic values such as the love of science, learning and the pursuit of knowledge, alongside other aspects such as good working environments, flexibility, autonomy and making a wider contribution to society. Women regularly mentioned ‘game-playing’ to meet key performance indicators (KPIs) set by the institution, which often did not map onto outcomes related to disciplinary success or fulfilment of job duties (particularly teaching, managing labs and research teams and building collective success).

  • Consideration of what is valued by the institution and the discipline, and whether a wider range of activities can be developed into KPIs instead of relying on ‘easy metrics’
  • Development of rewards or recognition for collaborative working and team successes
  • Clearer articulation of job roles and recognising all contributions, not only the most senior role (for example, if someone is, in effect, the day-to-day manager of a research centre, they could be named as Deputy Director or similar rather than their role going unrecognised)
  • Fair sharing of necessary non-prestigious work throughout all roles including senior management, and promoting an awareness of what jobs and tasks tend to be gendered

Strengthening flexible working practices

Flexible working practices were highly valued by women, and created cultures where individual needs were taken into account. Science departments had been particularly effective in improving the flexibility of working practices, often linked to Athena SWAN applications. Good practice in this area included keeping meetings to core office hours; enabling home working where possible; making part-time work possible and valuing part-time academics as full members of the team.

  • Departments and institutions should involve all staff in consultations about improving flexible working practices, learning from good practice in other departments and institutions.
  • Institutions should seriously consider the impact of heavy workloads on staff well-being, with particular regard to the impact on women, carers, part-time academics and non majority academic staff.
  • Departments should recognise that there will be ebbs and flows in careers, as personal and professional circumstances change in unpredictable ways. A departmental culture which values the contributions of all staff should be encouraged, to avoid individual staff feeling ‘invisible’ or undervalued.
  • Family-friendly and flexible policies need to be put in place, supported and proactively encouraged.
  • Senior management needs to review the support and culture at departmental levels, where women most strongly experience discrimination or aggression in relation to flexible arrangements.

This project raised many of the challenges that women face in advancing their academic careers, particularly negotiating disciplinary prestige, institutional structures and unbalanced workload allocations and managing caring responsibilities. At a time when more women are entering academia and finding mid-career success—but failing to advance to senior positions—mid-career success—but failing to advance to senior positions— we believe this project makes a very useful contribution to understanding what leaders and managers need to be thinking about to manage challenges, remove barriers and support the success of women in higher education.


  1. Morley, L. (2014) Lost leaders: Women in the global academy. Higher Education Research and Development, 33(1): 114-128. Doherty, L. and Manfredi. S. (2006) Women’s progression to senior positions in English universities, Employee Relations 28(6): 553-572.
  2. David, M.E. (2014) Feminism, Gender & Universities: Politics, Passion & Pedagogies (London: Ashgate).
  3. English, J.F. 2005. The economy of prestige. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. Coate, K. & Kandiko Howson, C. (2014) Indicators of esteem: Gender and prestige in academic work, British Journal or Sociology of Education.


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