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The University of Southampton
Working as a Researcher

Women in Academia

Contemporary academic career pathways tend to be complex, set within a context that contains a good deal of uncertainty and entails a wide range of demands. Women’s careers, in particular, may involve multiple-role commitment and may not follow the notion of a ‘traditional’ linear trajectory.

The road to success for women needs to be thought of in more varied and, perhaps, longer terms. With careful planning and lots of help from our friends, colleagues and mentors, and with great role models to inspire us we can and do triumph!

It should bother everyone that, in the 21st century, despite the fact that 45% of all academic staff are women, 78% of professors are men. Women make up only 22% of the professoriate in the UK and only 4% of Russell Group Universities have a woman VC (2012-13 HESA data), which has prompted Dr Paula Burkinshaw to ask, "why are there so few women VCs?"

Universities need to address some critical questions about fairness, flexible working, and supporting the diversity of talent. All kinds of people struggle to achieve success in the academic system (not only those with caring responsibilities), which suggests the key factors preventing women's progress must be structural and cultural. This is great news as it means they can, and will, be changed - and is why Athena SWAN is so important.

See the booklet Mothers in Science: 64 ways to have it all edited by Professor Ottoline Leyser for the Royal Society. You do not need to be a ‘mother' or ‘in science' to notice that there are many different ways to have a successful academic career - and very few take a straightforward route upwards!

In the words of Kelly Ward and Pamela L. Eddy, the academic organisation needs to ‘lean-in' as much as the women of Sheryl Sandberg's thesis in Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

Find out what the University of Southampton is doing to ‘lean-in'.

There are several well-known factors that enhance one’s chances of career success. The key ones include: having a mentor or number of mentors; drawing up a career plan; building a strong network of support; being visible and promoting your achievements; maintaining awareness of your attributes and professional skill-set; and possessing/developing certain qualities.

Get a mentor or mentors

Mentors are absolutely critical for career success!  They can be informal or formal, for a set period of time i.e. for six months, or for a single issue you would like help with such as advice on a fellowship, job application, work-life balance, etc.  Whoever and where ever they are, it is the mentee who will drive the relationship forward.

Draw up a career plan

Make sure you have clear goals and milestones, and regularly review your progress.  Start with longer term goals i.e. 5 years ahead, and work backwards through medium term goals (2 to 3 years) to the short term, i.e. a year from where you are now.  Review your plan regularly to see if you are on track.  What action do you need to take to realise your goals? 

Build your network

Women judge their success, on the whole, by the quality of the relationships they develop, so build a strong support system i.e. a network for both your career development and emotional support.

Become more visible

Stop doing 'invisible' work! Your talent does not speak for itself - you will need to raise your profile and your voice, so people know who you are and what you are known for. Sing your own praises and then engage some 'champions' who will sing them as well. Who sings your praises in the department or University other than your line manager/PI? Who needs to sing them?

Podcast with Suzanne Doyle Morris. Sam Hall, founder of 17Percent, spoke to Suzanne after finding out about her book 'Beyond the Boys' Club' and reading advice on her blog.

Be aware of your attributes and professional skill-set

As a professional you will be the primary driver of your career progress. There is always help and support to draw on but you should have a heightened sense of self-awareness of what your strengths are, where you can add value, and which areas you are less confident or skilled in, and those areas you might need to develop further. There are lots of tools available to help you identify your skill-set – a useful place to start might be the Vitae Researcher Development Framework.

  • Passion and enthusiasm for your subject – to keep you going in spite of everything
  • Perseverance – tenacity and determination to draw on in the face of adversity
  • Resilience – the ability to ‘bounce back’ and quickly recover from set-backs
  • Risk-taking - of the calculated and strategic variety rather than reckless kind
  • Self-confidence – this is an absolutely essential trait, which you can develop if you do not have much of it
  • Self-efficacy – you must believe in yourself and what you are doing
  • Self-leadership – you need to do this because in academia no-one is going to ‘lead’ your career, although there are lots of people to help.

With the exception of passion and enthusiasm for your subject, if you do not naturally possess perseverance, resilience, self-confidence, self-efficacy and self-leadership, you can train yourself and develop these attributes. Taking more risks in your career becomes easier with practice and is linked to self-confidence – i.e. do not wait until you ‘tick all of the boxes’ before applying for a senior post, take a chance and apply anyway, you can always learn something from the outcome

The reality of many women's lives makes ‘traditional’ conceptions about work and careers (i.e. that work is central to one’s identity, the main way to meet one’s needs, can be separated from other aspects of life, and that progression is linear and rational) problematic.  Not only can the working environment present barriers to women's success but other issues may inhibit progress as well.


An example of overt discrimination would be the view that you cannot succeed in academia as a part-time member of staff and the line manager/PI makes no effort to understand, support or accommodate part-time staff and may even actively speak against this kind of work.

Low level or micro discrimination comes in the form of a line manager/PI simply not understanding the requirements around maternity and paternity leave and not supporting their staff adequately.

For help, speak with a University Harassment Contact or see the Management Pocketbooks on 'Resolving Conflict' and 'Flexible Working'.

Lack of career management knowledge and skill

his is a self-inflicted wound! For career success you need a sense of direction and of how the work you are doing is adding to your CV. Women need to be pro-active, self-aware and actively seek out the support, advice and guidance they need to secure a successful next step. You cannot afford to be passive - you must manage your career.

For further information see Career and Employability Service - although aimed at students and PGRs they do have useful online resources about Job Hunting and the Job Application process.

For help, speak with your mentor or career coach, or see the Management Pocketbooks on 'Career Transition' and 'Self-managed development'.

A workplace culture of the ‘old boys club’

The 'old boys club' is where ‘traditional’ and out-dated ideas about work and how one interacts with one’s colleagues still dominate. Such ideas might include the assumption that staff have to work full-time, work long hours, attend alcohol based after ‘office hours' functions, and do not have any caring responsibilities. Everyone needs to challenge these assumptions in their working environment to ensure fairness for all.

For help, speak with a Harassment Contact; and/or see the Management Pocketbooks on 'Assertiveness', 'Empowerment' and 'Managing Upwards'.


Fear comes in a variety of guises: fear of being too successful, fear of being seen as too ambitious, fear of failure, fear of being judged, fear of taking on too much responsibility, fear of being found out as a fraud (the 'impostor syndrome'), fear of not being promoted as quickly as peers, fear of being left behind, fear of being invisible…etc

For help, speak with your mentor; get a Career coach; see the Management Pocketbooks on 'Assertiveness' and 'Empowerment'.

Superwoman syndrome

Beware of this syndrome, where women pressurise themselves unreasonably.  It is essential that you look after yourself and maintain a healthy work-life balance and push-back on aiming for perfection in everything

For help, speak with your mentor, a Career coach, see the Management Pocketbooks on 'Energy and Well-being' and 'Stress'.

The Superwoman fallacy: what it takes to be an academic and parent by Melissa Terras

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