How do women researchers perceive the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI)?
By Mohammad Hosseini and Shiva Sharifzad
Addressing gender issues in academia is a challenge for research administrators and policymakers, especially in male-dominated STEM fields (HEA, 2016).
Thus far, numerous initiatives to improve women researchers’ engagement, participation, and representation in research environments have been implemented in Ireland. For instance, Science Foundation Ireland promises “a supplemental discretionary allowance to enable SFI-funded research teams to provide cover for a team member who goes on maternity or adoptive leave” and the “SFI Advance Award Programme” which aims to provide female postdoctoral researchers with an opportunity to remain in, or return to, high-quality research” (SFI, 2017).
Another initiative is the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI), which aims to address the under-representation of women through awarding forty-five senior academic positions (HEA, 2021). At its core, SALI is a top-down affirmative action initiative that aims to address the gender imbalance in the academic workforce. Although well-intended and positive, the way that women researchers perceive SALI is thought-provoking.
In a recent study conducted by the authors of this post, involving interviews with sixteen women researchers from the Faculty of Computing and Engineering at Dublin City University, participants were asked about SALI (Hosseini & Sharifzad, 2021). While fourteen out of sixteen interviewees agreed that SALI is an important and urgent initiative, only five felt entirely comfortable about accepting one of these positions. One interviewee described SALI as a “necessary evil” that challenges notions of meritocracy and equity:
“I believe that the most qualified or the best person for a position should get that position, regardless of their gender. However, we’re not getting enough women to these high levels, to these professorships. It’s just not happening. This could be because of biases or unconscious biases during interview processes or because of personal requirements on women more than men.”
The fact that SALI is necessary is in and of itself problematic, according to another interviewee, who said that she would not be interested in being promoted in this way:
“I can appreciate the motivation behind it. I do not like the fact that it is necessary. People to whom I have spoken have said that they think it probably is necessary, that you have to get that pinch point to make it normal, to make people see that it is not strange to have women as professors and senior academics. But do I like the idea of it? No! Do I want to be a recipient of one of them? No!”
Given how their current accomplishments are sometimes undermined by men, some women anticipated that SALI promotions would be negatively perceived by colleagues. In fact, two women noted that these initiatives would even reinforce the stereotype about women’s alleged lack of competence in STEM disciplines, one noting:
“It is interesting that they want to have more women, this part is interesting, but if you pay attention it means that I cannot compete with men for other positions.”
The adverse reactions of some women to SALI could result from an inadequate engagement with inequality at an interpersonal level and indicate an insufficient awareness about the significance of gender equality among all academic groups, including men researchers. In fact, the study highlights some other examples of interpersonal inequalities (e.g., gender roles and implicit gender biases) that negatively impact women’s confidence and professional standards, or their choices when applying for new positions and submitting their work for publication. To address interpersonal level inequalities, the study suggests, all employees including men and non-academic parties (e.g. industrial partners) should be involved in discussions about gender equality. This recommendation echoes what the National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions suggested in 2016, to focus on organisational culture:
“It is clear that organisation and culture must change in order that talented women, and others who do not automatically benefit from the status quo, are fully recognised and rewarded.” (HEA 2016)
It may be true that efforts to improve organisation and culture might be time-consuming or costly, but they are arguably more likely to have a positive and lasting impact. While the gender make-up of the academic workforce can be improved with affirmative initiatives, culture cannot be changed solely with top-down solutions and requires bottom-up initiatives tailored to the dynamics of individual institutions/faculties.
We argue that while affirmative initiatives such as SALI are essential, they cannot address biases that have contributed to the under-representation of women in academia. Failing to acknowledge and address implicit biases and stereotypes, or biases against the competencies and achievements of women researchers (some of which were mentioned in the study), and equating gender issues in academia with the gender makeup of the academic staff, could result in adopting tokenistic approaches that leave root-causes of gender inequality untouched.
While top-down approaches and policies are necessary to tackle gender disparities in academia, they are more likely to improve the organisational culture of academic institutions if they are implemented in parallel with bottom-up initiatives designed to create awareness about gender issues among all parties, including men researchers and non-academic partners.
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Higher Education Authority (HEA). (2021). Senior Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI). Available at: https://hea.ie/policy/gender/senior-academic-leadership-initiative/. Last accessed 28 October 2021.
Hosseini, M., & Sharifzad, S. (2021). Gender disparity in publication records: A qualitative study of women researchers in computing and engineering. Research Integrity and Peer Review, 6, 15. https://doi.org/10.1186/s41073-021-00117-3
Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). (2017). Agenda 2020. Available at: https://www.sfi.ie/research-news/publications/organisational-publications/Annual-Review-Agenda-2020-web.pdf. Last accessed September 2021.