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Peacock or perish? Prestige and gender in academia

Exploring findings from research with 30 mid-career academic women at universities in London, Camille Kandiko Howson considers why women only progress in higher education to a certain point.
This article is more than 8 years old

Dr Camille B. Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education at Imperial College London

Women dominate higher education studies, enrolling in higher numbers at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Men and women are equally represented at lecturer level, but thereafter things start to get worse: women hold only one-third of senior lecturer and senior manager positions, a quarter of professorships and less than a fifth of VC jobs.

Why do women succeed in higher education—but only to a certain point? To explore this situation, we interviewed 30 mid-career academic women at universities in London, a project funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

What we found was prestige was key to promotions at the mid-career stage, and women felt that men accumulated prestige more easily and were more visible—and louder—in portraying it.

Communicating success

Academics have been marketised—you now have to sell yourself, your ‘brand’ and your work. Many women academics struggled with communicating their successes. To some it seemed like a game, others were too busy with students and teaching duties, while many felt it was not in their nature. The last point was particularly true for women from backgrounds where female modesty is praised and expected—in our study this included women with a Catholic upbringing, East Asian heritage and from working class families.

Women felt men were on a constant PR exercise: “Hi how are you?” “I’m great, just got a £50K grant and two papers published”.


The confidence in self-promotion extended to going for promotion. Women felt men were more comfortable putting themselves forward for jobs, and fine with an ‘aspirational’ CV. The women we interviewed felt they should wait until they met all of the criteria for a post, and often expected their boss or head of department to put them forward for promotion. On a job application, one woman was given the advice: ‘don’t be too feminine about it’, referring to women’s habit of under-selling achievements.

If women did get the next job up the ladder, they rarely negotiated a higher salary or other perks, such as a reduced teaching load or research support. If they did not get the job, it felt like a personal attack and judgement. Women noticed when the same happened to men, they treated it like an injustice and were more likely to appeal.

Getting the job done

When it comes to doing the job, the same pattern continues. Women wrote research bids specifying precisely what could be achieved, whereas they felt men were more comfortable promising the moon, sun and stars, and delivering less. Within the institution, women felt that men prioritised their own research, and the women were left the bulk of the teaching, administrative and support roles. As prestige follows research, the men accrued more at the expense of others in the department.

We noticed a gendered ‘exchange rate’ of prestige, with more accruing more and less accruing less. A few prestige marks, such as sitting on high-profile panels, giving keynote speeches, holding editorial positions, leads to more and more. Conversely, investing time in teaching, being readily available to students and doing the grunt jobs to run a department lead to more of the same.

One woman, simultaneously building a strong international research career and burdened with childcare responsibilities, was told to turn up to more departmental drinks events and meetings to build her ‘local reputation’. This is key for getting plum roles and recommendations, but often happens outside of the 9-5. The ‘schmoosing’ and ‘PR games’ were also important as many large grants are by invitation to tender—you have to be known to able to get ahead.

What is valued

Women were not victims of the prestige cycle, rather many felt they prioritised what they felt was important—doing high-quality respectable research, supporting PhD students and junior staff and ensuring a functioning department. What they felt was skewed was what the institution valued—the bragging, the gloss and shine over substance. They also noted not all males succeeded either, particularly those who did not fit the loud, proud stereotype.

Rather than enter a gendered arms race for self-promotion, women academics felt that a greater valuing of the collective work done in a department and within the institution was needed. Acknowledging that managing large teaching programmes, running research labs and supporting students all had benefits for the institution—and rewarding those involved—would help balance things out. Greater recognition of all the work of the academic role, not only the high-profile peaks, in hiring and promotions is needed.

On an individual level, mentors and managers play a key role in supporting, nudging and pushing women academics to advance. One woman was coached by her mentor into saying ‘I’m going to be a prof’, which she felt would become a self-fulling prophecy. Although not all were comfortable with it, many felt social media offered new ways to share work and connect with others to build a profile. Some felt new modes of communication continued to promote those who shouted the loudest, or tweeted the most.

But for International Women’s Week, do a favour—share an article, tweet a link, post a blog, if not of your own work than that of another. Get out and celebrate the great women out there.

In support of International Women’s Day, Wonkhe is posting a series of blogs from 7-11th March to explore the issue of women in wonkery. Find them here

5 responses to “Peacock or perish? Prestige and gender in academia

  1. Very important point. This is currently a gender issue, but it will always be an issue of differentiating what is of value and what is practiced in all fields. Is it about Peacocking more or is this an invitation to rethink the process? I believe we have replaced the true measure of innovation and success with the marketing of the appearance of innovation or rationalization of mediocrity. PR is a secondary tool, but not the solution to proper recognition, nor dissemination of timely and timeless knowledge.

  2. Very relevant arguments, pointing up the importance of robust and relevant processes for recognising skills. Another example of how far ‘team working’ is honoured in the breach…

  3. This is unfortunately my experience of HE. Women who try to make sure their progress and development is visible are considered egotistical, where men are considered successful.

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