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IWD2021: Women's leadership and gender equality in academia

Professor Cathy McIlwaine, Vice Dean for Research for the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy, shares her thoughts on the challenges faced by women in academia, promoting gender equality and the importance of having females in senior leadership positions.



Professor Cathy McIlwaine

What are some of the challenges of being a woman in academia and have you seen any positive progress around these issues during your career?

Academic life can be very challenging for women given some deep-seated structural prejudices that favour those who can travel internationally to attend conferences and/or conduct research overseas, take-up visiting positions abroad, and work long hours. For those with parental and caring responsibilities these challenges can present major barriers. For too long, maternity leave can create ‘gaps’ in women’s research trajectories which can be viewed as a failure to perform consistently over time.

Whether women have parental or caring roles or not, female academics often get channeled into student-facing roles and teaching-oriented administrative posts that have traditionally and incorrectly been accorded less value within promotion structures, yet which keep most academic departments functioning. This then means that women publish less, have less time for external and international networking, and for applying for fewer large research grants. They also get paid less than men. Rather depressingly, there is also evidence that even within teaching, women are often evaluated more negatively than their male counterparts.

Thankfully, things have changed since I began working in academia over 25 years ago. Speaking generally, maternity and caring leave are now treated much more seriously (and are generally excluded from sabbatical planning, for example – something it was not in the past); teaching and related activities are much more fully incorporated into promotion structures; esteem indicators are generally more flexible.

The gender pay gap within academia remains an issue and needs to be addressed, although King’s has done important work on this in recent years, with a focus on professorial levels. Also, external evaluation systems such as REF are also actively trying to take Equality, Diversity and Inclusion into account and much more seriously.

On a personal note, I recall a previous REF when I had had two periods of maternity leave and worked part-time for some of the eligible period, yet I was still asked to submit the full requisite number of publications. I wasn’t forced to do this, but I remember thinking it seemed unfair, as it did not seem like a level playing field. Things can change, as I now sit on the national Geography REF panel which has actively attempted to recruit more balanced numbers of female academics and those from BAME backgrounds.

Why do you think that women are often under-represented at senior academic levels?

Many of the reasons I have identified above are part of why women are under-represented, in that they are unable to accrue what is often deemed the appropriate experience in a metric-oriented and arguably masculinised (and racialised) system.

The idea of a gendered ‘prestige economy’ in academia has been developed to explain this (Kandiko Howson et al. 2018), which argues that male academics are more likely to develop high-profile, research-oriented activities within an individualised system.

I think this is very relevant, as I have seen many women, especially mid-career, getting ‘stuck’ and are unable to move up into professorial positions, because of the pressures they end-up facing in the more ‘routine jobs’ that make departments work. Women are not individually responsible for this; the structuring of the system is.

What advice would you give to female academics and researchers about the value of taking on a leadership role?

It is important to have female role models in leadership positions to show that it is possible for women to undertake these jobs. It is also important to have women making strategic decisions within universities. Even more simply, in academia, female students and staff deserve to be led by a gender-balanced senior management team.

While it does not always follow, and there are dangers of being essentialist here, there is evidence that women are generally more likely to make emotionally intelligent decisions, that are more oriented towards the collective over the individual. The success of female leadership has been in the news recently, as we have seen how women have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic more successfully, people such as Jacinda Adern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Your home department has been proactive in promoting gender equality (securing a Bronze Athena Swan award), why do you think this is such an important issue?

I was delighted to co-lead the Athena SWAN bronze award in Geography. When I arrived at King’s, Prof Bronwyn Parry was very keen to work on this and given that I had prior experience of applying successfully, I felt it was really important, as I had seen the difference it had made in other departments. As I said, it was co-lead with Sabrina Fernandez, Head of School Administration in the School of Global Affairs, without whom it would never have happened!

This is a really important point as in my view in that good leadership in academia entails academics and professional services staff working closely together in mutually supportive ways. Our Athena SWAN submission is an ideal example of this.

The Athena SWAN process is immensely time-consuming and challenging especially in terms of data gathering. But it is worth it in that it does set out an infrastructure, an architecture that may not solve gender inequalities, but which definitely make it easier to try to address them.

We now have a permanent Equality, Diversity & Inclusion Committee in Geography, with ED&I as a standing item on all other committees and included in student inductions, as well as an ambitious action plan moving forward. I would like to see a more intersectional approach used by Advance HE (who govern Athena SWAN); we tried to address this but there is little scope to do this at the bronze stage. However, I am pleased that the ED&I committee is actively working on various anti-racist and decolonising initiatives.

Also, a core aspect of my vision as Vice Dean Research in the faculty is to embed ED&I into our strategic work. We have established a new working group on this and are currently exploring faculty level gender gaps in research grant applications/successes, with a view to also examine how we might think about research culture moving forward.


Your research looks at gender-based violence, particularly among women in Latin America and among migrant communities in the UK. Has this shaped your view of the role of women can play in empowering others or finding their voice?

A very long time ago, my PhD was on gender and labour markets (in Latin America), and I have worked on gender and feminism in various ways throughout my academic career, including on citizenship struggles and political participation. So, I have always been interested in the power of gendered and feminist transformations.

I have worked with a range of feminist organisations in London and overseas and I never fail to be impressed by and to learn from what women can achieve in the face of severe gendered and other intersectional inequalities.

But violence against women and girls remains one of the most insidious problems globally and we must work to challenge the structural violence and gendered power inequalities that underpin it. We need to acknowledge the complicity of states and institutions within this too.

Just like addressing gender inequalities in academia, we need to address systemic inequalities and not just the individual ways in which women are discriminated against. This must also be situated within intersectional forms of oppression and power relations too that account for race, class, sexualities, disabilities and other identities.

One of the themes of this year’s IWD is Choose to Challenge - what is the one thing you think is a priority to challenge around current gender inequalities?

Driven by my research interests, the one thing which I think is a priority to challenge is complacency, and impunity around direct and indirect violence against women and girls. We must recognise this as an issue, and we must work much harder to address it.

Banner image: UN Women/Yihui Yuan.

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Cathy McIlwaine

Cathy McIlwaine

Professor of Geography

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