12 February 2018

Women's Career Pathways in Academia: From Leaky Pipeline to Rube Goldberg Machine

In 2016, Aileen Fyfe, Ineke De Moortel and Sharon Ashbrook of St. Andrew's College in Scotland wrote Academic Women Now: experiences of mid-career academic women in Scotland.

In this and more recently in an opinion article for Times Higher Education magazine, author Fyfe addresses her and her colleague's recent efforts to understand women's careers in academia. They argue that the leaky pipeline - understood as a metaphor to describe the dwindling proportion of women in higher levels of seniority - is an incomplete analogy to understand these women's experiences.

Their population included women with children as well as child-free women; some are in long-term relationships, and some are not; some are maintaining long-distance relationships, and some have suffered the breakdown of their relationships; some are in their thirties and others are nearing retirement; some have had serious health problems; some have had careers outside academia; and a significant minority are currently working part time (in a surprising variety of ways).

The authors found that these women's [c]areers [did] not all flow along a single pipeline, or at the same pace. Women (and men) do not drift along, transported automatically from point A to point B by some force outside themselves: they work, they struggle, they get creative, and they improvise. And far from a single pipeline, there are clearly many different paths through academia.

As for the kinds of challenges that feature in their participants lives, the authors identified caring responsibilities, about impostor syndrome, about work-life balance and about promotion. We also noticed that “balancing” is not just a matter of “work” and “life”: our women refer to the challenges of dealing with the competing aspects of academic life, and with increasing responsibilities as the nature of the job changes over time and with seniority. 

In light of Fyfe's findings, perhaps the Rube Goldberg Machine is a better analogy to understand women's experiences within academia than those pipelines of the past.