The “Leaky Pipeline” Problem: Why Successful Women Aren’t Pursuing Leadership Roles in Canadian Higher Education

Young Canadians in academia who aspire to senior leadership roles don’t have many female role models to look up to.

More women are pursuing a postsecondary education today than ever before. But as women climb the ranks, they drop off by the dozens—a “leaky pipeline,” as many refer to it. By the time we get to senior leadership roles, there are large inequalities. Female presidents, according to a 2013 University Affairs blog post by Léo Charbonneau, lead only 23% of the AUCC’s 97 member institutes. One might hope that the numbers for other senior leadership positions are better, but with only 27% of academic vice-presidents and 23% of research vice-presidents being female, they aren’t much more promising. What’s more, when comparing the salaries of women and men in academia, men’s salaries are higher at all faculty ranks. This disparity, according to The Report of the Pay Equity Data Group by the University of British Columbia, still remains after accounting for differences in experience.

To some, it may not be surprising that there are so few women entering senior leadership roles in postsecondary institutions given the similar landscape elsewhere, such as in politics. But institutes of higher education pride themselves in being progressive and inclusive. If we are innovative places of the future, then why are we no different than any other institution in society? Shouldn’t we be leading by example?

If we are innovative places of the future, then why are we no different than any other institution in society? Shouldn’t we be leading by example?

The media has certainly picked up on the issue of gender equality in higher education. A quick Google search for “females in academia” yields hundreds of hits, many as recent as this year, with ominous titles such as “Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried” or “Female academics pay a heavy baby penalty.” But where the conversation is truly lacking is within higher education itself. The most troubling issue isn’t that there are problems; rather, it’s that we aren’t always willing to have open conversations about them, especially in the places where they are the most prevalent. I still remember when I heard an acquaintance who is a faculty member at a research-intensive university in Ontario say, “You never know who you can trust. When I was pregnant, I didn’t tell anyone. I just let people figure it out for themselves. They won’t treat you the same if they know you’ll be leaving.”

The issue of work-life balance in academia is a contentious one for both men and women. However, for women who are interested in having both a family and a successful academic career, deliberations and even serious concerns about how they will be able to do both often begin years before they get there. As an undergraduate student in a STEM discipline where women are fairly poorly represented in the faculty ranks, I was more than aware of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) challenges of “having it all.” I had heard and read about female academics who said they felt disadvantaged because of their gender – for example, because of rigid institutional policies surrounding tenure and promotion – or who felt like they didn’t have anyone to talk to about issues relating to their gender – for example, how to take maternity leave without obliterating their research program and abandoning their graduate students. But these issues weren’t ever things that I heard talked about in the open. They were always conversations that took place behind closed doors, in small corners of the academy or only among trusted colleagues. In many ways, it was clear that even for the females involved, these issues were uncomfortable, embarrassing, and better left untouched.

The problem with being afraid to talk about gender issues in academia is that we’re sending a terrible message to our young women. We’re letting them rule out career pathways years before they get there. Our young women often lack confidence in themselves and in their ability to meet their career goals. In fact, some argue that today’s issue of gender inequality isn’t as much about archaic institutional policies as it is about a confidence gap between men and women. According to an article by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in The Atlantic, women are less self-assured than men, which can drastically affect their career prospects. For example, men are much more likely to apply to a job where they match only one or two of the listed qualifications. Women, on the other hand, are unlikely to apply unless they meet all or most of the qualifications. They are also more likely to attribute their failures to internal shortcomings than men and to report “imposter syndrome,” the refusal to believe that they deserve the successes that they have achieved.

The confidence gap does more than just prevent women from applying to jobs in the first place. It also hurts those that are already on the job. Because it is the “norm” for women to be less self-confident and less assertive than men, we are often harder on those women who defy this stereotype. A number of studies have shown that women in leadership roles who exhibit assertiveness in order to execute a management decision or attempt to engage in salary negotiations are perceived significantly more negatively (e.g., as cold, arrogant, or unfeeling) than their male counterparts executing the same tasks. This phenomenon may also explain why those women who are in senior leadership positions have a harder time in those roles than men, and are perhaps perceived more negatively by their colleagues and subordinates in certain situations.  

The evidence that women often have a more difficult time in academia than men, particularly in more senior leadership roles, is considerable. So, let’s start having open conversations about the role that gender plays in higher education and what we can do about it. This may need to involve a careful reexamination of policies that exist in higher education that may inadvertently disadvantage women. It also means that those in a position of power need to advocate for a system that values productivity while also allowing its employees the right to a healthy work-life balance. As Curt Rice points out in The Guardian:

Universities will not survive as research institutions unless university leadership realizes that the working conditions they offer dramatically reduce the size of the pool from which they recruit. We will not survive because we have no reason to believe we are attracting the best and the brightest. When industry is the more attractive employer, our credibility as the home of long-term, cutting edge, high-risk, profoundly creative research, is diminished.

Besides challenging our institutional policies, we also need to become better roles models for our young women and for each other. If you are currently a woman in academia – particularly if you are in an underrepresented field – sharing your story with others can go a long way. As a young woman who is interested in pursuing an academic career, I have especially appreciated hearing the perspectives of other successful women on gender issues in academia, both the positive and the negative. I also see incredible value in organizations that celebrate and advocate for women in academia. For example, McMaster Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) runs regular “mentor of the month” events where faculty volunteer their time to share their stories with us and where we are provided with a forum to talk about gender-related issues in higher education. This is just one of many great examples of initiatives that are taking place to advocate for women, but many more would be welcomed.

It takes confidence to begin conversations around gender equality in academia, but the outcome will be worth it: successful women having the confidence to pursue a fulfilling and rewarding career pathway. Let’s work towards an academy of the future that is truly at the forefront of innovation and equality.

Anita obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in Biochemistry from the University of Guelph, where she was a President’s Scholar, 3M National Student Fellow, and Millennium Award Laureate.

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