Women in academia: on the balancing act

I often chat to my students about career choices and these conversations often also cover the topic of gender balance in academia, which typically gets more male biased as you climb the academic ranks. To give you some numbers, I’ve calculated the proportion of fte that are filled by women, from PhD candidate to professor, for the Faculty of Science of the University of Amsterdam, where I am based now. I obtained the data here. As you can see, the percentage of ftes filled by women is always less than 50% and significantly declines as you move up the academic ranks.
Percentage of academic ftes at the Faculty of Science (UvA) filled by women














Associate professors














PhD candidates







Why do we lose so many women higher up the ranks? Of course, there is no simple answer to this, but here I would like to reflect on one particular aspect: links between career and family choices. Often, in a couple where both are in academia, the female is younger than the male, and often, this implies that the male is further in his career than she is. So, this means that the male will likely be the first to find a PhD position, which means that the female can be constrained in finding a PhD position close to, or at the same institute, as her partner. The same applies for the next hurdles when finding Post Doc positions and eventually a tenure track position. In finding the right balance, more women than men in partnerships might decide to leave academia for a different job. This might happen even more when couples have children. I wonder to what extent such decisions contribute to the significant decline in women ftes as you move up the academic ranks.
So what is the story behind women that do obtain a faculty position, particularly if they have children? At a Post Doc symposium at Imperial College in 2011, a Q&A panel was assembled to answer questions on academic careers. One of the four panel members was female. Eventually, the question was asked how she combined her work with family life. Her answer: she had a house husband. But other women academics with kid(s) also manage when their partner is not a house husband, see here (in Dutch) and here for example. Here is an interesting story on the act of balancing academia, parenthood and family life, and this story also sums it up nicely. Are there particular ingredients to being able to successfully balance an academic career and parenthood? In my case (but probably in many cases) the continuous support of my partner is the most crucial ingredient for combining a career in academia and parenthood. My partner is a freelancer and works from home, which gives us much flexibility in running the household. Being in academia also means that working hours can be flexible, which is a second crucial ingredient (if you do not have to be in the lab/field from nine till five). For example, when my son was still in nursery, I looked after him at home one day during the working week and made up the hours in the evening. Online shopping and increased efficiency help too. All in all, a combination of hard work, support and luck got me to where I am.

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