Challenges for women in research 


Being a researcher is challenging, irrespective of gender. Academics are increasingly feeling the squeeze from increasing pressure to publish – both at a higher frequency than in the past, and in higher quality journals – while also managing a scarcity of funding, plummeting grant success rates, demanding students, heavier teaching loads, and unsustainable expectations for administrative and community engagement. A recent Nature articles notes that young scientists today face a much tougher and more competitive environment than in the past [1]


Professor Robyn Owens, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Research at UWA, observed in her interview for Women in Research, that being a successful researcher today is like an “elite sport”, requiring vast skill, commitment, and persistence to succeed. 


For female researchers, the evidence shows that many of us face additional challenges. Studies across multiple occupations show that: 


  • Women experience much more harassment than men [2], including both so-called “low level” harassment (e.g., lewd comments, patronising remarks) and more extreme forms, such as cyber sexual harassment or being sexually touched in an unwelcome way. 

  • Women experience higher work-family conflict [3] than men [4] which impairs women’s work performance [5] and health [6].

  • Bias – both conscious and unconscious – against women still exists. A vast amount of research shows that, all other things being equal, women compared to men are seen as: 

- Less competent in their work [7] 

- Lacking in leader qualities [8] and potential [9] 

- Less likely to succeed [10] 

- Less likely to be hired [11] 

- Less likely to be promoted [12]  

- Less likely to be chosen for leader positions [13]

  • Women experience backlash, such as not being selected for positions or promotions, when they behave in stereotypically ‘male’ ways e.g., being agentic, taking responsibility, being confident. However, they receive no performance credit when they behave in “female” ways [14][15]

  • When women are chosen for leadership positions, they tend to be “precarious” positions in which the chance of success is much lower [16].

  • Women have fewer informal mentors [17]

  • Women are paid less than men for work of equal value across more than 30 industries (except for Agricultural Support Services and Building Construction; administrative jobs) [18]

  • In academia, women are more likely than men to be employed on short-term contracts [19], likely to perform more service than men [20], and less likely to have tenure [21]

  • Women are under-represented in the “hard” fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), which typically command higher salaries [22].  


These examples of discrimination and unequal treatment do not affect all women at all points in time. Nor are they exclusive to women. Nevertheless, the evidence is clear in showing that – on average – women researchers face additional pressures in their careers.  

What can we do about these challenges?  


These challenges for women are not insurmountable. Instead, these challenges mean that women need extra support. Because women are already at a disadvantage, this support isn’t an ‘unfair advantage’ – it’s a way to buffer against some of the bias and the additional pressures faced by women and bring everyone to a level playing field. 


Other than social and moral arguments, there are also considerable negative effects on the economy due to women’s inequality in the workplace [23][24][25][26]. 


Because of the inequality of the playing field, its vital that our organisations and institutions (and the decision-makers within them) take steps to remove bias and support women (click here, click here or click here to read more). Although there has been some improvement in Australian universities in recent years, there is still room for improvement. Initiatives such as Athena Swan and SAGE (Science in Australia Gender Equity) are intended to help improve the situation, yet many Australian universities are yet to fully commit to these programs.  


We also need support from decision-makers in workplaces, including local supervisors and managers who actively support flexible work arrangements, promotion committees who make fair decisions, and a culture that celebrates diversity. These are just a few of the changes still needed in many of our workplaces.  


This website, and the resources we have created, is designed to both provide support for women researchers in their careers and to create better workplaces for women to work in. 

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