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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. 

Suggested links

See full reference list
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  1. Nature (2016, October 26). Early-career researchers need fewer burdens and more support. Retrieved from 

  2. Stop Street Harassment (2016). The facts behind the #MeToo movement: A national study on sexual harassment and assault. Retrieved from 

  3. Akkas, M. A., Hossain, M. I., & Rhaman, S. (2015). Causes and consequences of work-family conflict (WFC) among the female employees in Bangladesh: An empirical study. Journal of Business and Economics, 6(12), 2063-2071. doi:10.15341/jbe(2155-7950)/12.06.2015/007 

  4. Gutek, B. A., Searle, S., & Klepa, L. (1991). Rational versus gender role explanations for work-family conflict. Journal of Applied Psychology, 76(4), 560-568. doi:10.1037/0021-9010.76.4.560 

  5. Mukarram, A., Akbar, S., Jan, Z., & Gul, A. (2012). Work-life conflict impact on female’s job performance: A study of primary level female school teachers in Pakistan. European Journal of Business and Management, 4(20), 74-83. 

  6. Leineweber, C., Baltzer, M., Magnusson Hanson, L. L., & Westerlund, H. (2012). Work–family conflict and health in Swedish working women and men: a 2-year prospective analysis (the SLOSH study). The European Journal of Public Health, 23(4), 710-716. doi:10.1093/eurpub/cks064 

  7. Moran, B. B. (1992). Gender differences in leadership. Library Trends, 40(3), 475-491.  

  8. Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper & Row. 

  9. Schein, V. E., Mueller, R., Lituchy, T., & Liu, J. (1996). Think manager—think male: A global phenomenon? Journal of Organizational Behavior, 17(1), 33-41. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1099-1379(199601)17:1<33::AID-JOB778>3.0.CO;2-F 

  10. Schlitzer, V. (2014). Are men really better suited for success than women? Bentley University. Retrieved from  

  11. Quadlin, N. (2018). The Mark of a Woman’s Record: Gender and Academic Performance in Hiring. American Sociological Review, 83(2), 331-360. doi:10.1177/0003122418762291 

  12. LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company (2017). Women in the workplace 2017. Retrieved from 

  13. Hill, C., Miller, K., Benson, K., & Handley, G. (2016). Barriers and bias: The status of women in leadership. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women.  

  14. Rudman, L. A., & Glick, P. (2001). Prescriptive gender stereotypes and backlash toward agentic women. Journal of Social Issues, 57(4), 743-762. doi:10.1111/0022-4537.00239 

  15. Rudman, L. A., Moss-Racusin, C. A., Phelan, J. E., & Nauts, S. (2012). Status incongruity and backlash effects: Defending the gender hierarchy motivates prejudice against female leaders. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(1), 165-179. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2011.10.008 

  16. Ryan, M. K., & Haslam, S. A. (2005). The glass cliff: Evidence that women are over‐represented in precarious leadership positions. British Journal of Management, 16(2), 81-90. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8551.2005.00433.x 

  17. Ragins, B. R. (1996). Jumping the hurdles: Barriers to mentoring for women in organizations. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 17(3), 37-41. doi:10.1108/01437739610116984 

  18. Sin, I., Stillman, S., & Fabling, R. (2017). What drives the gender wage gap? Examining the roles of sorting, productivity differences, and discrimination. IZA Discussion Papers 10975, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA). 

  19. Cervini, E. (20160. Equal pay is an academic concept for women in higher education. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from  

  20. Guarino, C. M., & Borden, V. M. (2017). Faculty service loads and gender: Are women taking care of the academic family? Research in Higher Education, 58(6), 672-694. doi:10.1007/s11162-017-9454-2 

  21. Mandleco, B. (2010). Women in academia: What can be done to help women achieve tenure? Forum on Public Policy Online, 6(5), 1-13.  

  22. Nimmesgern, H. (2016). Why are women underrepresented in STEM fields? Chemistry–A European Journal, 22(11), 3529-3530. doi:10.1002/chem.201600035 

  23. Shoham, A., & Lee, S. M. (2017). The causal impact of grammatical gender marking on gender wage inequality and country income inequality. Business and Society, 57(6), 1216-1251. doi:10.1177/0007650317696231 

  24. Blau, F. D., & Kahn, L. M. (1994). Rising wage inequality in the U.S. gender gap (papers and proceedings). The American Economic Review, 84(2), 23-28.  

  25. Nikpei, A., & Elmi, Z. (2015). The effect of gender discrimination on economic growth in the Middle East and North of Africa with emphasis in Iran. Paper presented at International Student Conference of Economics (ISCE). Babolsar, Iran.  

  26. Tomaskovic-Devey, D. (1993). Gender & racial inequality at work: The sources & consequences of job segregation. Ithaca, NY: IRL Press.  

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