THE BLOG

What Does It Take to Succeed in Academia?

20/02/2014 14:42 GMT | Updated 21/04/2014 10:59 BST

In the course of my work as the University of Cambridge's Gender Equality Champion, I travel to many other universities to discuss what they are doing on the equality front. Sometimes I meet with Vice Chancellors and senior management, sometimes I meet the students and early career researchers. Often it's a mixture of both and the conversations are always fascinating and illuminating. However, the fascination can be a fascination of horror and what may be illuminated are the problems the higher education sector still faces and which it is working hard to overcome.

Many of these difficulties are not specific to universities because they seem to be culturally ingrained in us and extremely difficult to challenge, even to recognize in oneself, because they are so common. As a specific instance, during one of my visits to another university after a conversation with their vice chancellor I went to talk to one of the other members of the senior executive team. Commenting on what a nice office the VC had, a quick-fire response came back 'Mine's bigger'. It was hard not to laugh at such an inappropriate start to our conversation about equality issues. Mary Beard (Professor of Classics at Cambridge) recently highlighted another of these deep cultural issues in her talk on 'The public voice of women', discussing how hard it is for some people to accept women as a voice of authority.

So often quantitative metrics define success within universities: the size of an office may well be seen as a measure of status and valued accordingly by some. Other common metrics used to measure someone's achievements include the total value of grants, the number of publications on a CV - and, more subtly, the number appearing in what are deemed crudely as the 'glamour' journals - and the number of international talks given at major conferences. These are of course important figures to know. But is that all it takes to succeed and are they the best measures? The University of Cambridge is calling for a debate on the meaning of success within the sector in a letter published in the Times Higher Education today. This call arises from the insights gained during a series of interviews with 126 women across the University, when it became clear that a much wider range of measures than these simple metrics contribute to a woman's own sense of achievement. Measures that matter greatly in the daily University life but which don't necessarily score highly when it comes to career progression.

These interviews - which make for fascinating reading - will form the core of a book entitled 'The Meaning of Success' published next month as part of the University of Cambridge's celebrations of International Women's Day, Overwhelmingly the women commented on the need to feel that they were instrumental in supporting others, in building and leading teams and not just feathering their own nests. They valued the time they put into teaching and encouraging students. Their research was not all about 'winning' or beating the opposition in reaching some result, but in a job well done with a productive team and a sense of integrity. These are measures we should all value. Of course many men do too; they aren't feminine attributes but they are too easily lost in the quantification that can sit at the heart of recruitment and promotion decisions. So, it is time to widen the definition of what matters when we attempt to define and determine success within our universities.

Why does it matter? It matters in higher education just as much as it matters in the board room. We need diverse teams in order to be as innovative and successful as possible. The HE sector contributes over £3bn a year to the UK economy. Maybe it could contribute even more if we retained the talents of those whom we currently lose through focussing on too narrow a range of criteria when it comes to selection processes. The recent Science and Technology Select Committee highlighted this very factor in its recent report on Women in Scientific Careers, stating

'Interestingly, the skills that are normally considered essential to leadership are undervalued in academia'.

Leadership tends to be by those who have jumped through the academic hoops rather than those who necessarily excel in leadership. Skills such as communication and teaching may barely feature in promotion criteria. We need to do better for the sake of future generations of students, the economy and for the individuals themselves.

The University of Cambridge is calling for universities to be more self-critical and move on from the narrow range of criteria which have dominated the sector. This is likely to be of particular benefit to women, but will also be welcome to the many men who don't wish to live by the 'mine's bigger' mantra. Currently only 14% of the vice chancellors in the country are women, with the level of female professors not that much higher, although it varies markedly between disciplines. Too often we continue to see stories about the 'first' woman to accomplish this or that, be it in higher education or elsewhere. That is why the 'First Women' awards are still, depressingly, necessary (in association with Lloyds Banking Group, they are calling for entries until Friday 4 April). So, it's the 21st century, let's have a debate about what true success means, and not just base it on 1950s values which have passed their sell-by date.

Athene Donald is the University of Cambridge's Gender Equality Champion and a Professor of Experimental Physics. She tweets at @athenedonald. She was shortlisted for the 2013 First Women Awards.

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This year's awards ceremony will take place on Thursday 12 June and is hosted by Real Business in association with Lloyds Banking Group.