International Research Conference, Lancaster UK, 18 - 20 July 2016
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Gender Inequalities in Academic Work: Mid-career women and the prestige economy

Dr Kelly Coate, Dr Camille Kandiko Howson and Dr Tania de St Croix King’s College London,


The under-representation of academic women in senior positions in higher education (HE) is a continuing problem (David 2014). This paper will report on findings from a project funded by the Leadership Foundation which examined the career strategies of academic women in the middle stages of their careers. Research has tended to focus on academic women who are early-career researchers or those who are in senior and leadership positions (e.g. Hoskins 2012; Fitzgerald 2014; Dean et al 2009). Valuable as this research is, it is also important to explore the experiences and perspectives of women who see themselves as being mid-career, particularly as this stage probably encompasses the longest period of most women’s working lives. The research aims to share the strategies that women have found useful in developing their careers, while also arguing for institutional change. We interviewed thirty women from nine different London universities who were from a variety of disciplines, with a majority from the natural sciences. Participants were allowed to self-select as being mid-career, and the sample ended up including a variety of job titles, reflecting disciplinary norms, women’s non-standard career pathways and institutional differences. The interviews started with a concept-mapping exercise whereby the interviewees produced visual representations of their 5-10 year career plans. We then discussed these maps with them, asking questions about obstacles and opportunities they perceived in terms of their career development, about the role of prestige in promotion and progression, and about other forms of recognition and reward. One of the areas of focus in the interviews was the role of prestige in academic careers. We use the term ‘prestige economy’ to describe the collection of beliefs, values and behaviours that characterise and express what a group of people prizes highly (English 2005). High-status publications and substantial grant income are obvious indicators of esteem in the university. Other indicators include being invited to give keynote speeches at international conferences, editing journals and supervising PhD students. Previous research on motivation in academic work has highlighted the role of prestige in career advancement (Coate and Kandiko Howson 2014). However, prestige is a gendered concept, and this research contributes to evidence that women find it harder to access the types of currency that advance their reputations (Morley 2014). This research raised many of the challenges that women face in advancing their academic careers, particularly negotiating disciplinary prestige, institutional structures and unbalanced workload allocations and managing caring responsibilities. At a time when more women are entering academia and finding mid-career success—but failing to advance to senior positions—we believe this project makes a very useful contribution to understanding what leaders and managers need to be thinking about to manage challenges, remove barriers and support the success of women in higher education. Enabling women to flourish at the most senior levels of universities will inevitably bring many benefits to society.

Key Words

Gender, academic careers, prestige

Link to Full Paper


Conference Organisers

Paul Trowler
Lancaster University, UK

Alice Jesmont
Lancaster University, UK

Malcolm Tight
Lancaster University, UK

Paul Ashwin
Lancaster University, UK

Murray Saunders
Lancaster University, UK

Chrissie Boughey
Rhodes University, South Africa

Suellen Shay
University of Cape Town, SA

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