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Career Advice

For women academics, a challenging landscape

New research explains gender-specific barriers to academic success


Most women academics have learned the hard way that excelling in academia can be even more challenging for female scholars. Yet there is little research available to help us understand why.

Why do women pursue PhDs? What factors lead them to complete their studies successfully? What other barriers do women academics face?

These questions lie at the heart of a qualitative study I undertook recently with two colleagues at the University of Manitoba and the answers we found are eye-opening. As one woman told us, “I went into my doctoral studies looking for a career change and soon wondered if I had landed in a foreign place.”

Throughout focus groups and individual interviews with women from Winnipeg, Toronto and across the United States, we heard a similar story. Women come to doctoral studies in order to increase their career flexibility, seek out new challenges and build their skills.

Yet, the career outcomes they seek are often difficult to realize. They quickly find that their family and academic mentorship support systems are too underdeveloped to help them achieve their goals. What’s more, an academic job market that favours mobile candidates can further disadvantage women.

Before exploring specific strategies for overcoming these obstacles, which I’ll do in an article next month, let’s explore why the academic career path presents several unique challenges for women.

Just as when you are discovering new or unfamiliar territory, a map of the landscape can make all the difference in getting you where you want to go.

Why women get PhDs

The reasons women pursue PhDs are neither gender-specific or unusual.

“I have always had a tremendous longing for knowledge and learning,” explained one woman we interviewed. Indeed, many of the women we spoke to explained their entry into doctoral studies in terms of filling a need for further learning.

A desire to increase career flexibility and an interest in teaching or working in academia were also mentioned as career goals.

From support to success

Support, including both formal and informal systems of social, academic and financial support, is crucial to success in academe for both men and women.

Most of the women we spoke to needed to continue in their employment while completing their degree. Many others were caregivers, either to children or elderly parents. Juggling these traditional responsibilities in addition to their new academic ones left these women feeling stretched thin.

“There was an immediate immersion in studies during the first two years and my family had to juggle and organize themselves around mom studying and doing her homework,” one woman explained.

Academic mentorship is another key support that is often lacking for women doctoral candidates. While finding a mentor is equally important to the academic development of both genders, establishing this key relationship may be even more difficult for women.

That’s because despite women making up over two-thirds of enrolment growth at Canadian universities since 1971, only one-third of Canadian faculty are female: that means many fewer female role-models and trail blazers in academia paving the way for women academics and establishing mentor relationships with them.

The idea of mentoring or needing support from a mentor was evident in each of our interviews. Women who felt they had some mentoring were able to move forward more quickly and with confidence while completing their studies.

“It would have been helpful to have had a mentor to guide me through the process of my studies and help me understand the process involved in preparing myself for entering into academia,” noted one woman who did not find such a counsellor. Women who do not find a mentor must often search for alternate academic support systems, such as peer support from other women scholars.

Finally, depending on their circumstances, certain women needed to carve out alternative financial arrangements, such as cutting down their hours of paid employment or taking on student loans.

The relocation barrier

All doctoral students must consider relocation if they want to pursue a position within academe. The problem is particularly pronounced in Canada where few cities have more than one university.

Competition for positions is as fierce as ever and increasing cutbacks in the social sciences and humanities is further diminishing employment prospects. Generally speaking, universities rarely hire their own doctoral graduates.

While this employment market affects both men and women, the relocation barrier can be particularly disadvantageous to women who often tie the decision to relocate with care-giving, relationship and financial issues.

“Many of the opportunities [for employment in academia] were in other cities, provinces and countries, and while I applied for some of them, I am half-hearted about such prospects, as my preference is to maintain my life with my partner of 35 years,” said one.

“When your partner has a really good job, it is difficult to think of uprooting a young family so that the other partner can have a good job,” said another.

These quotes speak to the tendency of women to consider their family or partner’s needs in their career choices. They also suggest that women need to carefully consider their motivations and goals when beginning their doctoral studies.

Changing career direction may mean the need to consider other life changes. It is important to be aware of these realities when beginning a doctoral degree in order to understand the choices ahead of you and how flexible you can and want to be in your career path.

Next month I will explore strategies for overcoming some of the obstacles discussed here. My colleagues and I are also in the process of completing new research with both men and women graduate students in an attempt to compare and contrast challenges faced by both the genders.

Dr. Marlene Pomrenke is a professor, and a counselor at the Student Counselling and Career Centre at the University of Manitoba. Carolyn Peters and Rose Barg co-produced the study referenced in this article. Funding for this research was partially provided by the Social Work Endowment Fund at the University of Manitoba.

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