Working towards an equal voice for women in academia

Catherine Léglu, Skerilajda Zanaj and Sallam Abualhaija (clockwise from left) University of Luxembourg

Catherine Léglu, Skerilajda Zanaj and Sallam Abualhaija (clockwise from left) University of Luxembourg

An internal survey at the university revealed that 87% of female researchers felt men had better career chances. Both administrative and academic staff said men were given preferential treatment and that there wasn’t enough support for them to develop their careers.

“What you must do is work towards equal representation, an equal voice and equal participation, which also means equal chances for promotion, for access to jobs, and for access to senior roles,” says Catherine Léglu, vice-rector for academic affairs since September 2019.

Even though women make up more than half of Bachelor and Master students, numbers thin out the higher up the career ladder you go. Only one of the university’s three faculties is led by a woman. Its three research centres--the SnT, LCSB and C2DH--are all headed by men.

One of the reasons for this imbalance is that to become a head of department, you must be a full professor, of which only around a quarter are women. “We need more full professors who are women; we need to mentor women so that they can take on administrative and leadership roles,” Léglu says.

A specialist in medieval French and Occitan literature, Léglu herself comes from a field that is more populated by women researchers. “I lived through the gender imbalance becoming more and more equal,” she says. At her last post in the UK, she headed a department with more female professors than men, more women up for promotion and more men in teaching-intensive roles, rather than research-focused positions.

“The cultural expectations around being an ambitious woman academic were already changing by the time I got my first post, and I could see the difference between my experience and the experiences of women who were 20 years older,” she says.

Normalising diversity is important, Léglu says. As a public institution, university boards and councils at all levels must feature at least 40% women (or men, if they are in the minority). “Working towards a percentage is very useful,” says Léglu. “It becomes part of the culture.”

But she also wants to see a broader discussion about diversity and other inequalities--disability, ethnicity or sexual orientation. “You shouldn’t really be still having to make a case for women to have a senior role. That should actually be yesterday’s fight.”

“Not a policy for women”

And yet it is one that the University of Luxembourg is still fighting. Gender equality officer Skerdilajda Zanaj helped launch the internal survey that revealed the perceived imbalances by staff. The results serve as the basis for a gender equality policy, which she is developing together with a gender-balanced committee.

Based on the internal audit and an international benchmark, the group is working on six policy areas to promote gender equality. “It’s not a policy for women, to benefit women and leave men behind. Absolutely not,” says Zanaj. The committee wants to propose a set of measures that will lead to tangible results.

A follow-up audit in three years’ time should reveal whether the policy has been successful. Involving the university community in the process has helped raise awareness, Zanaj says. “There have been a lot of activities for awareness. This is already something that has changed.”

A professor of economics, Zanaj says that bias and “patronising comments” haven’t stopped her from advancing in her career, but that it is a challenging environment.

Research shows that women have more difficulty getting published and also face greater scrutiny when presenting their research to peers in their field, an important step in building a reputation. “On average, there are 12 questions more when women are presenting,” says Zanaj. And the imbalance also translates into the classroom as the professor says she has felt students take her less seriously than her male colleagues.

The path to senior roles in academia and job stability is long. A three to four-year PhD programme is usually followed by several years of post-doctoral work in fixed-term contracts and at different universities. It can take more than ten years to reach a senior permanent position. Academia loses women to the private sector, which--although it comes with its own gender challenges--is more compatible with family life.

Sense of responsibility

Sallam Abualhaija, a post-doctoral researcher in language processing, intends to stick it out, despite a high demand for tech professionals in private companies. “I like academia, I like research. I want to stay and advance my career to be a full professor at some point,” she says.

Abualhaija is Palestinian but grew up in Jordan, where she completed her undergraduate studies in computer science. “Having grown up in the Middle East, in a patriarchal society, the biggest hurdle for me to become the person I am now was to develop self-awareness and confidence, despite the gender bias,” she says. “I wanted to overcome these difficulties through excellence in my studies.” 

The support of family is crucial in a society that is only slowly becoming more progressive, she says. “My father raised me to be myself.” Although around a third of students in her programme were women, most go on to become schoolteachers. “It’s another gender bias that they don’t go into companies or academia,” says Abualhaija.

For the post-doc it has been important to find allies who are aware of diversity issues, not just because she is a woman in science but also because she is Muslim. “I am from a minority group,” she says. “This gives me more of a sense of responsibility because of this idea of a Muslim woman, a woman in academia, being oppressed, under-educated and so on.” She wants to encourage other women. “They will be great scientists, not less worthy than any male scientist,” she says.

And even though their paths have been different, all three women agree that until gender equality has been achieved, initiatives like International Women’s Day are an important reminder to keep fighting. “We can keep International Women’s Day until we have equity in society,” says Abuahlhaija. “We haven’t reached this space yet and we still need to appreciate women a bit more.”