Why aren’t women leading research impact cases?

There’s just over a year to go before the 27 November 2020 deadline for submission of REF 2021 impact case studies. But how many will be led by women?

REF 2014 business and management studies represented the highest number of cases (413) submitted for any unit of assessment (UoAs). We found that only 25 per cent of 395 REF 2014 impact cases for business and management studies where a case leader or co-leader was identifiable, were led by women. Of these, just over half were sole authored. This suggests that in the most popular UoA impact was highly gendered in the last round.

This under-representation of women scholars leading REF 2014 impact cases was also mirrored in historical studies.The Royal Historical Society (RHS) reported that more than 70% of principal investigators in REF 2014 impact cases were listed as men. The RHS found proportionally higher representations of men leading impact cases for history at the professorial level. Of all REF 2014 impact cases written by professors, 75% of cases were written by men.

Gender and women as a topic (plus minorities) was highest in REF 2014 impact cases in the UoAs for Sociology and Area Studies. In interviews with impact case leaders in business schools there was a feeling that gender as a field is disparaged by male scholars – even though gender equality is listed fifth as a priority in the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals. There have also been calls in health more generally to avoid such gender bias with women researchers and women research respondents being significantly under-represented – resulting in gender-biased research policies and medical treatments.

Undervalued work

So, why don’t women engage more visibly in research impact? Our interviews with impact case members indicate challenges for women with caring and domestic responsibilities who suffer time pressure, higher teaching workloads, and higher pastoral care workloads than their male colleagues – all examples of undervalued work, rather than leading impact cases. And as more men in British business schools are professors, perhaps we should not be surprised that they have more time for research and for research impact.

What might be done to fix the system rather than the women? This collection of essays on research impact recommends four approaches – based on advocacy, accountability, analysis and allocation. These perspectives might help to mitigate the distortions we are currently seeing within the research impact policy agenda. We need greater awareness of the impact case agenda in doctoral training programme, and opportunities for women to sell their contributions to impact. We also need greater accountability in terms of who has actually generated the impact – and who claims it. We would also welcome an analysis nationally about diversity of REF impact case teams so that time and support are allocated fairly in the academy.

Time for a debate

We need a debate on dis-engendering impact case writing and further research on sharing successful exemplars in the UK and Australia and around the world of women designing, delivering, and being recognised for research impact. Given international trends towards the evaluation of research and its impact, we are planning to expand our research on this globally.

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