Addressing the leaky pipeline in academia: strategies to attract and retain women scientists

Attracting more female researchers is one part of the work towards gender equity in science. Here, Anna Ginès i Fabrellas offers four actions to support women pursuing academic careers

Anna Ginès i Fabrellas's avatar
9 May 2024
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Checking a leaky pipeline

The leaky pipeline affects academia just as it does other sectors. Even though women have outnumbered men in undergraduate and graduate courses for many years, the number of women decreases as we go up the academic ladder. Widely studied in STEM disciplines, this phenomenon is also present in arts, humanities, medicine, social sciences, business and law (AHMSSBL). Although women make up about half of all PhD candidates, according to She Figures, only about 30 per cent of researchers are women, while 20 per cent of full professorships are held by women and only 20 per cent of research organisations in Europe are led by women.

In this context, Esade has led the Equal4Europe project to develop gender-equality standards and address the leaky pipeline in AHMSSBL research institutions. The project, funded by the European Commission in the Horizon 2020 programme, has resulted in the adoption of gender-equality plans in the six research institutions participating in the project (Esade, ESMT, IEDC, INSEAD, RSM and Comenius University), including specific measures to: 

  • Remove barriers to recruitment, retention and career progression of female researchers
  • Promote the presence of women in decision-making bodies and processes
  • Integrate the gender perspective in research and teaching
  • Mainstream gender equality.

The project showed that women face important barriers when pursuing academic careers, such as balancing family responsibilities with the stringent requirements of an academic career (including travel, international mobility and long hours), unconscious or implicit gender bias and sexual harassment in male-dominated fields with a hierarchical power structure. Important differences also persist between women and men with regards to access to mentoring and formal/informal networks.

Measures to address sexual harassment and inappropriate sexual behaviour are crucial when it comes to retaining female talent in research institutions. Recent research shows that bullying and sexual harassment are important barriers for women when accessing and pursuing careers in academia. Institutions should have policies to prevent and address situations of bullying and harassment.

The Equal4Europe consortium’s Handbook for the Implementation of Gender Equality Plans by AHMSSBL Institutions includes best practices for implementing gender-equality standards in research institutions. The aim of the handbook is to offer specific strategies, activities and tools.

Here are key actions to emerge from the project.

Identify gender inequity and its causes at your institution

The first lesson learned from the project is the importance of basing any gender-equality measure in data. To begin, conduct a complete diagnosis of gender equality at the institution to gather data-based evidence. This could include analysis of archival data on the composition of staff, participation of women and gender balance in teaching courses, research projects, hiring and promotion committees, and decision-making bodies. Other tools include interviews of relevant internal stakeholders, including high and middle management, and surveys to understand the perception of gender equality from staff, faculty, researchers and students. The information will allow institutions to detect the existence of gender inequalities and pinpoint their origin and causes.

Actively involve all levels and parts of the institution in gender-equality work

Another valuable action is to engage with all relevant stakeholders when adopting gender-equality measures. A participatory approach should involve upper and middle management, academic staff, administrative staff, gender equality officers or bodies, the human resources department, workers’ representatives, students and external stakeholders such as alumni. The engagement is key to fostering involvement, strengthening the internal community and promoting the exchange of knowledge and expertise. The aim is to guarantee that the gender-equality measures not only hold on paper but are effectively implemented.

Address the leaky pipeline from the recruitment stage

Addressing the leaky pipeline in academia requires targeted measures to attract and retain female talent. One important finding of the Equal4Europe project was that the leaky pipeline can originate in the application phase. Applications for faculty positions in research institutions in Europe predominantly come from men. Gender-inclusive recruitment practices are needed to attract female talent. For example, there is evidence that women apply for jobs when they fulfil more than 90 per cent of job requirements, while men apply when they fulfil 65 per cent. Given this gender difference, job listings should focus on the essential job requirements to avoid deterring women from applying to the job or penalising career breaks such as maternity and childcare leave.

Remove the motherhood penalty

Finally, work-life balance strategies that guarantee the compatibility of an academic career with family responsibilities (and remove the motherhood penalty) will help retain women scientists. Tenure-clock freeze or research intensification after childcare leave are interesting measures to guarantee equal opportunities between women and men in achieving their research goals. 

Gender-equality measures are essential to attract female talent to institutions and to guarantee that institutions are selecting, hiring and employing the best for each job. Gender-equality strategies can eliminate the barriers and social structures that impede the full participation of women.

Anna Ginès i Fabrellas is project coordinator for Equal4Europe and associate professor of labour law at Esade Law School at Universitat Ramon Llull, Barcelona.

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