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International Women’s Day and the leaky pipeline in academia

Date:18 March 2021
Sepideh Yousefzadeh
Sepideh Yousefzadeh

Every year, the 8th of March, is an opportunity to revisit what was it like to be a woman in the past in legal or social terms, and what is it like to be one in today’s legal and social arrangements. Hundreds of conferences and gatherings take place on that day to celebrate the achievements, to claim more equity and justice and call for the removal of gendered barriers that still continue to exist. 

One of the outcomes of the online life in times of COVID-19 has been the ability to join conferences and talks across the globe. This year, on the 8th of March Utrecht University (UU) held an online session on “gender inequality and Corona Pandemic: a systemic shock.” The online format of the session made it possible for me to join a conference, which is a luxury, given that my child is still young and I am the only parent. I was happy that I could join this talk specially because I knew that UU is the home of some nice initiatives to improve societal relevance in academic research and teaching. In 2020 the university assigned its first Diversity Dean to promote “Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.” Equity does not seem to be an area to focus on (yet) in this initiative, and equal opportunity is the core of their focus. Nevertheless, while initiating a working group or committee does not guarantee changes in policy, assigning a dean to promote diversity sounds like an important institutional commitment, assuming that it also comes with financial resources, human opportunities and political support.

I listened to two very informative and spot on presentations about the gender gap among women in science and the leaky pipeline, where female academics leave their academic jobs at different stages of their career because of hurdles that are gendered. An important aspect of the presentations (both of them by female scientists from the global north) was the level of details and concrete evidences that were presented, which in my view, left very little room for abstract discussions. I was really enjoying the talks, hoping though, to hear them unpacking the “women” in science and academic career and get into an intersectional level of examples. I thought there will also be some data on different forms of diversities among women, including age, racial, cultural or religious backgrounds. I raised the issue in the chat and was relieved to see that several participants backed up the need and importance of diving deeper in this topic and unpack the intersectionalities. Sadly, the session was only 45 minutes and there was no time to expand on diversities among female scientists. 

Discussion on women’s promotion and tenure in academia, often, resonates very much with the first wave of feminism where the racial, gender orientation, economic disadvantage and other forms of diversities among women were not part of the claims of white women from the higher socioeconomic groups in the global north. The existing studies show how women of color and women from the global south, LGBTQ+ scientists, or female scientist who live with disabilities are disproportionately affected by the leaky pipeline. There is no doubt that promoting the status of “women” (who are white, abled bodied, from the global north, or from higher socioeconomic backgrounds) has been an enormous step to bring change into the long traditions in academic institutions. However, it is equally important to widen the perspectives on diversity. Having more “women” is still not sufficient for producing the broader knowledge that is required in order to challenge the global injustice that affects the world unevenly. Increased number of “women” in academia may – at some point – improve gender equality. But it risks normalizing understandings of global justice or global responsibility and overlooks the perspectives from the global south, those who live with disabilities and those who are minoritized one way or another. It also risks normalizing our definition of scientific approaches to research and education and falls short in acknowledging how positionality shapes our approaches and academic identities. 

Sepideh yousefzadeh

Tags: Women of CF