Career progression review of progression and promotion of women in biological science 2001/02

Brief description

The University’s biosciences faculty reviewed what was seen as the major hurdle for women in the biological sciences - the transition from contract researcher to lecturer. Its aims were to find out why so few women make the transition and why so few held senior academic posts. Specifically they wanted to identify institutional and other constraints to the appointment and promotion of women academics, and to identify and assess possible solutions and the changes needed at faculty, institutional and national level to attract more women to academic posts and facilitate their retention and career progression.

Contact: Penny Hatton, Director, Staff and Departmental Development Unit (SDDU) -
Progression and Promotion of Women in Biological Sciences.


Analysis of Leeds statistics revealed it was a typical UK biological science faculty, with women representing 45% of contract research staff, 29% of lecturers and less than 10% of senior academics. They did not see barriers to promotion as the reason why at Leeds there are so few women at the top; rather that the women were ‘diluted out’ by an influx of men to senior posts. The review was undertaken against a background of a low awareness of the issues of career progression for women in SET and a minimal engagement of women academic and research staff in the agenda for change.

Organisation structure and management

The steering group for the review included the University’s HR director, representatives from staff development unit and academics internal and external to the faculty. The approach they used was focus groups for contract researchers and lecturers, a questionnaire to all research and academic staff in the faculty, based on themes arising from the focus groups, and one-to-one interviews with senior faculty managers, selected principal investigators and questionnaire respondents.

Key findings

A key finding was the lack of HR management skills at all levels. Most of the other problems identified were associated with this poor management. They impacted on both sexes, disproportionately affecting those with caring duties, mainly but not exclusively women. The issues identified were:

  • an appraisal and mentoring system that failed many at the point of delivery
  • excessively long working hours and a culture that fostered this
  • a lack of infrastructure support that meant even trivial tasks could often not be delegated
  • the employment of a large number of contract researchers who felt disenfranchised and had few opportunities for personal development or promotion
  • a male dominated management hierarchy which inhibited many women from speaking their minds and that largely just accepted the detrimental effects of maternity leave on women’s careers
  • too few opportunities for part-time employment even as a temporary solution when domestic commitments precluded full time work
  • too much variation in policy and practice between the schools and individual research groups

Other findings of interest were that:

  • women admitted they were as likely as male colleagues to be biased against female applicants for CRS posts through fears that maternity leave and childcare responsibilities might threaten the successful and timely delivery of projects to sponsors
  • men appeared to seek academic posts in order to obtain financial security for their families and not because they viewed them as a preferred career option. Women’s financial concerns were more about affordable childcare
  • women were more aware of the negative aspects of an academic career at an earlier stage whereas men obtained lectureships first and then realised that reality did not match expectations. Taking this longer view thus seemed to deter women from embarking upon an academic career even though they admittedly continued to love the subject and research
  • women lecturers worked longer hours than male lecturers and women were less likely to have children
  • Women who obtained senior lectureships were more likely than their male colleagues to seek further promotion and were equally likely to be successful. Whereas, at lecturer level, a slightly smaller proportion of women than men put themselves up for promotion. This suggests that women who achieve senior academic positions are a self-selected group who have managed to avoid or overcome the constraints experienced by other women and who show a higher than usual degree of ambition.

Their conclusions were that addressing problems in a gender specific way was not the best way forward, and that greater attention to people management and development, openness, inclusion and flexible working should benefit all staff as well as making academic careers more attractive to and sustainable by women. Facilitating women’s transition from contract research to academic posts required actions on both sides of the barrier.

Impact and benefits

The steering group believe that the study’s findings can be used to make lectureships more attractive to both men and women and more sustainable by women by, among other things, the implementation of mechanisms to minimise the effects of career breaks on women’s competitiveness. Writing in summer 2002 the team was uncertain whether the investment they had made in their report was worth it. The 65-page study report made 28 suggestions for action – 12 at faculty level, 10 at university level or at faculty level and six at national level.

At faculty level, the project raised awareness among men and women, managers and staff, of the gender imbalance amongst academic staff, particularly at senior level and the need to address it with positive action. Although the initial reception by the faculty management committee reflected their concern about the resource implications of implementing the suggested actions, a first successful outcome was the production and distribution of a feedback guide to all faculty staff. The study was also instrumental in the University’s decision to appoint faculty diversity officers. Since then the faculty management and HR structures have been strengthened and action has been taken to improve appraisal and mentoring for contract research staff. Each member of academic staff is now a member of at least one broad research grouping, which means that all groups should have sufficient critical mass to be able to support any member through maternity leave.