Considering the ‘leaky pipeline’- are we missing the point?

First published in April 2018 on

In 2013, a colleague of mine finished her PhD. After congratulating her, I asked if she was considering applying for academic jobs. I’d always assumed that an academic career was what doing a PhD was for, and I was curious about her decision not to pursue this path. I couldn’t understand why anyone would embark upon such a long and difficult road only to leave academia afterwards. I wondered what it could be about doing a doctorate that could be so off-putting, and whether it was more so for women than men. In 2014, I started my own doctoral research with women PhD students to try and answer these questions.

Of course, individuals undertake a PhD for a variety of reasons; some career-related, some not. Though the traditional conception of the PhD is as an academic apprenticeship, this harks back to an age where an academic job was attainable for the majority of doctoral students, and before the Roberts Review brought a broader focus on developing research skills and training in doctoral degrees. However, the fact remains that in the current climate, a doctorate is a requirement for anyone aspiring to be an academic.

Yet the experience of doing a doctorate is inherently gendered. Existing research shows that women have a less positive experience of studying for their PhD than men, which has implications for their career aspirations. Studies conducted by the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Wellcome Trust identified gendered patterns in the post-PhD career aspirations students in the sciences, with women being far less likely than their male peers to want to pursue an academic career after their studies due to factors such as expectations of geographical mobility to take up academic posts. Other research has found that women PhD students are less likely than their male counterparts to be encouraged to engage in activities relevant to building academic careers, such as publishing and presenting work.

For the past two decades there has rightly been outcry at the under-representation of women in senior academic roles in higher education, including at the professorial level, and especially the lack of women of colour in these positions. Yet it is obvious that the experiences of women further down what has been described as the ‘leaky pipeline’– the term for how fewer women are found at increasingly senior levels of academia – are likely to inform whether or not women become senior academics – or academics at all. My own doctoral research, undertaken with first year women PhD students across disciplines, has shown that their experiences during the doctorate are critical in determining whether or not they can imagine themselves as future academics. Their experiences of academic life during the PhD often acted as a litmus test for an academic career, providing the opportunity to work out whether or not this career was for them. Participants in my research were often discouraged from their initial academic aspirations by witnessing the pressure their supervisors and other academics were under to publish papers, and to totally dedicate themselves to work at the expense of a healthy work/life balance. Observing the discrimination that women academics faced, along with the increasingly competitive academic jobs market and the proliferation of short-term, insecure contracts, meant that pursuing an academic career was often not an appealing prospect.

A further issue which contributes to the ‘leaky pipeline’ but which is rarely commented on is the lack of parity in the numbers of women undertaking doctoral degrees. Despite the ever-increasing numbers of women studying for undergraduate and postgraduate taught degrees in the UK (55.3% and 58.7% respectively in 2014/5), this drops off considerably in relation to postgraduate research degrees according to recent data from the Equality Challenge Unit. Compared to the significantly higher proportion of women at undergraduate and postgraduate taught levels, we see the number of women doing postgraduate research degrees drop to 47.4% in 2014/5. There is also little ethnic diversity among doctoral students, which is particularly significant in relation to race equality in the academy; according to ECU data in 2015/6 just 16.8% of doctoral students in the UK were from BME backgrounds. Thus fewer women, and BME individuals, undertake the qualification which is required to become an academic in the first place – which has clear implications for the future of the higher education sector.

The findings from my research highlight how women PhD students become discouraged from an academic career because they struggle to establish a sense of belonging within their academic communities as doctoral students. They often envisaged that as early career academics they would face gender discrimination, and were put off by expectations of geographical mobility to pursue an academic career, which was likely to involve competing for a series of short-term, temporary contracts. The challenges they encountered during their studies, such as gendered expectations of their abilities, meant that the majority struggled to imagine themselves as future academics, despite aspiring to academic careers at the start of their studies. These findings correspond with research by the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Wellcome Trust, which reported that women PhD students were more likely than men to change their minds about pursuing an academic career during the doctorate.

My research calls for institutions to take action to address the under-representation of women in the doctoral student community, and to work to ensure equality in their experiences. Women studying for undergraduate and postgraduate taught degrees should be encouraged to consider studying for a doctorate, and efforts should be made to ensure that departments are inclusive and supportive of women doctoral students. This is vital if we are to create an inclusive higher education sector which reflects the range of available academic talent, and which enables women academics to progress their careers at the same rate as men.


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