Women and Energy in Academia

23 Nov 2018

The recent BIEE Summer Conference had a morning breakfast session on women and energy (organised by Karoline Rogge of Sussex), and the talks can be listened to here. We speakers were all asked to answer three questions in relation to our experiences: Juliet Davenport talked about the importance of certain types of business management models; Vivien Geard from BEIS talked about public service; I concentrated on what it has been like for me in academia; and Barbara Vest from Energy UK, ably, chaired it.

Since then, many people (men and women) have contacted me with their views on gender or diversity in academia, and what more universities or research councils could do.

The EPG has just started a small piece of work for UKERC on women and energy (Jess Britton of IGov is PI) to illuminate the situation of female energy researchers in the UK. This will take the form of a literature review; interviews – what actually do female energy researchers think about academic life and accessing research funding, and what changes would they like?; and it will also look at the available data on women and funding.

The energy research landscape is obviously hugely diverse and the issues are complex but the project seeks to develop a solid evidence base regarding the issues and develop sensible suggestions about gender and energy. Equally as important are the wider questions of diversity, and this needs far more understanding, evidence of impact and action.

The UKERC piece of work is therefore reasonably bounded in terms of data analysis – which is broadly to do with gender balance in energy academia – but we do expect wider issues to arise from the interviews. Quite how we incorporate those areas into our project report will have to be thought about.

Narrow concepts of success

For example, one issue I touched on in the BIEE talk is related to the high level Government policy with respect to higher education. It could be argued that it has (huge statement here and my view only) an overly narrow goal of creating world class universities (meaning, my interpretation, fewer, ‘better’ research based universities than we currently have). I would argue this has led to universities being fixated on KPIs / league tables in the hope that they can survive in this reset world.

A pervasive long hours culture

All things being equal, academics who work harder will add more to those KPIs – produce more papers, bring in more money and gain more impact and this is harder for academics who want a sensible work life balance / family life but also harder for academics who are good colleagues and do the communal university stuff (which takes up time) relative to those academics who focus on themselves and their best interests, including writing papers.

All things being equal – and we know from the literature things are not equal – but all things being equal at a job interview, the academic with good papers, more money and impact will get the job. Universities therefore want to improve the ‘average’ academic performance to enhance the KPIs, and so the pressure is to work longer and longer hours so that the ‘average’ is raised.

How hard we as academics work is therefore a major issue for diversity outcomes, and one of the things I said at the BIEE conference is that I regret working so hard over my career. One part of the solution for better diversity in academia is for universities to be better employers which delivers meaningful well-being policies which alter the hard work culture. They have to become clearer about what an academic working week is and what is expected – rather than the never-ending list of possible things which could be done. See Jenny Pickerill’s advice on dealing with time pressures.

There will always be driven types working in universities and that has to be accepted, particularly given that academia remains a prestigious job, but while the underlying incentives on universities are outputs which ultimately incentivise universities either to push (potentially bully) academics or turn a blind eye to overwork, then the culture will not change. This therefore means that academics able and willing to work long hours are likely to do better than those either not able or not willing to do so – and that of course, has nothing to do with ‘ideas’ ability.

There have been lots of benefits of the REF / KPI type system – speaking as someone who was just coming into academia in 1992 when the first one came into being. However, from my own perspective, I think it has become the tail that wags the dog and for many reasons – not just gender and diversity – it would be great if it could be reformed (there are loads of analogies here with the need to, and difficulties of, transforming the energy system).

New shoots crowded out by older trees

These difficulties are linked to, and exacerbated by, various dynamics within universities. The moves to centralise around PIs who have permanent university posts for applications, in my view, undermines innovation and makes it harder for those who don’t have a university post but who have lots of very good ideas to break through whilst simultaneously keeping PIs, who may not have such good ideas, going. A move to bigger grants from research councils exacerbates this.

Internal university proposal sifts – usually a university policy although sometimes due to research council penalties – also, in my view, undermines innovation but also, possibly unwittingly, continues biases. And finally, the marketization of universities in order to maximise KPIs, in my view, has led to Lecturers expected to do more for the universities which both eats into time but also has led to a different role and outlook of academics, which ultimately and overall – despite some probably good things – dampens innovation and again favours the non-communitarian colleagues.

Smaller pots, balanced panels both in recipe for equality

One very obvious and simple way forward is to have a lot more money for small grants and early career researchers (ECR), as a way for ECRs to break through and show how good they are – men or women. This is sensible anyway for innovation but there could be specific pots of money with diversity eligibility requirements, or women only pots of money. If we want more women, and we want a more diverse work force, then let us make money available until we reach a desired percentage.

However, whilst simple in one way, the organising of peer review and panels as currently set up to assess bids is a problem for research councils. Simply finding enough academics to review bids and then turn up to panels is a big ask – particularly given the increased pressure on academics for KPI outputs – never mind trying to ensure that those reviewers and panel members reflect a fair balance of views so that they simply don’t continue the same biases.

Research councils have attempted many solutions to this and it is encouraging that efforts are being made to both improve gender balance on panels and to create a more strategic approach to equality, diversity and inclusion. However efforts to increase the gender balance of advisory and peer review panels whilst the gender balance of academia, particularly in many energy disciplines, is poor – risks overloading a small pool of female researchers. More creative work needs to be done on how to support female researchers to undertake these important roles without unreasonable detriment to other academic commitments.

Additionally, the move to sandpit type events or competitive applications for research meeting days which act as the basis of one or two big proposals as well as the move away from multiple smaller projects towards fewer big projects (both of which were developed to overcome the problems associated with traditional peer review and funding processes) both have attendant diversity and inclusion issues. If increasing diversity in academia is a UKRI priority then changes need to be made.

Other suggested solutions

In addition to the issues above, multiple other solutions were suggested at the BIEE meeting, and since then by many others who have sent in their views on those solutions and added more suggestions (for example, see here, here, here, here ). Some of those suggestions are:

  • There are structural factors which limit advancement opportunities for women, along with (and including) general insecurity and lack of career paths for many academics. A solution example, might be that universities introduce research career paths (with both permanent and flexible contracts) in addition to ‘lecturer’ career paths in universities (where research based people also do some, but more limited, teaching). This would move universities on from the outdated divide between lecturers and research / post docs / phds, and would also allow individuals more control over the type of contracts they wanted at different times of their lives.
  • As said above, research councils should return to giving out a far higher proportion of money in smaller pots for early and mid career research(ers) rather than the increasingly large grants – this needs a new, simpler review process.
  • Universities, and the REF KPIs, should be much more supportive for new parents, and for any staff with caring responsibilities. Men as well as women should be encouraged to take advantage of flexible working policies.
  • In general, Universities, and the REF KPIs, should be thinking of ways to encourage family-friendly working (for example, onsite creches).
  • As said above, universities / research councils should make it easier for people to put in bids. Bids should routinely be allowed from academics without permanent university posts (some programmes already allow this).
  • Research councils should not only give a steer on diversity to panels but ensure it is taken note of, which anecdotally does not necessarily seem to be the case.
  • As said above, demand management or sifting also creates problems. Universities will be more cautious about who they put forward, and more likely to take forward the ‘safe’ bets, especially if they are penalised for failure rates.
  • Research could offer the Universities the chance to bid for a fund to encourage new academics and / or returners and / or diversity, that could then be distributed across the University, i.e. devolve the funding responsibilities. A University would therefore make its case for why it should have a pot of, say, 3 million, and be judged on how well it does against its own metrics. One of which would be, establishing these individuals into permanent posts. Alternatively, Government could require universities to make a minimum pot available each year for diversity – have it as a REF KPI?
Conclusion

The UKERC work has just started, and will finish next Spring. As said above, it’s a huge area and we will have to be disciplined in what we work on. Nevertheless, we think it is going to be rewarding to understand why, from the point of view of our small dimension of academia, women’s participation and pay remains stubbornly unchanging (here, here and here). If you’re interested to engage with the project, including sending us literature references etc, please email gender-energy@exeter.ac.uk.