We found that the publication records of women researchers at DCU’s Faculty of Computing and Engineering were impacted by various factors. These factors could be subsumed under two headings:
Factors that hinder women’s engagement in research publications, including gender roles, implicit gender biases, negative perceptions of their expertise and accomplishments (by others), women’s (own) high professional standards, family responsibilities and nationality.
Factors that support women’s engagement in research publications, including networking and research communication, collaboration with other institutes, and funding acquisition.
1. Factors that hinder women’s engagement in research publication
At the start of each interview, interviewees were asked whether they were satisfied with the number of papers they had published. Fourteen said that they were not happy and that they wished they had published more. The two exceptions were both PhD candidates – one who noted that she had too many publications and would have preferred to have had fewer, higher-quality publications, and another who was satisfied with the number of her publications. Subsequently, interviewees were asked to provide their perspective about the lower average number of publications, focusing on the extent to which they perceived gender to be a determining factor. Although none of the interviewees believed that DCU is an unpleasant place to work for women, and none believed that they are supported unequally in publishing their work (confirmed by the Likert type questions they answered, available in the supplementary document), in describing their lived experiences, interviewees mentioned some insights linked to their gender. We categorized issues brought up by interviewees under six themes: gender roles, implicit gender biases, negative perceptions of their expertise and accomplishments (by others), their (own) high professional standards, and the intersection of interviewees’ gender and their familial status and nationality.
In discussing various aspects of their work, sometimes interviewees framed disparities in terms of roles or tasks which are more often expected of women. They recounted their experiences of being perceived as having certain characteristics because of their gender, leading to the conclusion that since they are better at conducting a specific task, they are expected to do it. Although one interviewee noted that administrative staff take notes in her group, seven interviewees mentioned that administrative tasks (e.g., minute-/note-taking, delivering organised financial reports of international trips) are among those tasks that women are expected to engage in more often than men. According to one interviewee, “we spend a lot of time with that admin work instead of spending our time on research”. Another interviewee stated that she was asked to input published papers of the whole group to the system (“so yeah, I was just putting it in for everybody basically, I’ve done that the first two years [of my appointment]”). Men, on the other hand, tend to “refuse to do those pieces of admin work because they are too busy working on something else”. Furthermore, the organisation of training and monthly get-togethers sometimes frustrated women as described by an interviewee: “I never … I mean I never saw an instance where a man has been asked to arrange it next time”. These interviewees highlighted that women seem to be stereotyped as detail-oriented, well-organised and willing to help others.
The impression of three interviewees was that women are expected to work/deal with students more often than men. While one interviewee was not sure about the reason for being disproportionately approached by students (“they [students] just come [to the lab] and ask me loads of questions”), another interviewee suggested “they [heads of schools] do like to have women in roles in contact with students, because it is nicer for students to see women in the staff as well. And sometimes those student contacts can be very time consuming”. Another interviewee noted that contact with students could be distractive (“when you deal with students, there’s always admin issues”). Given the burden of administrative and organisational tasks, student support and teaching responsibilities, interviewees noted that it is difficult to focus on research and work on publications: “this [publishing] is important, but has low urgency, so loads of other things that are urgent tend to take over”.
In addition, one interviewee framed the burden of gender balance policies as an extra demand that negatively effects women’s publication record (because in departments with a disproportionately high number of men, on average, women are more often asked to join committees and boards): “If you’re trying to have the gender balance in terms of your committee makeups and your PhD examiners and all that, maybe there are higher demands on women because they’re trying to make up for this gender balance all the time”.
Implicit gender biases
In discussions about their publication records, participants described implicit gender biases that women face in professional environments, which indirectly affect their publications. Eight interviewees described these biases in terms of workload. Two participants felt that sometimes women are expected to work more, but were unable to explain why (“there are fewer demands from them because they are men”). Five other interviewees described the situation slightly differently, noting that they work late or at weekends because they feel the pressure to perform better than men, implying that the expectation is not necessarily imposed on them. Since “it is in people’s nature to think that men are really better”, women feel that they need to work harder or be “much more engaged to help or to suggest something or make more contribution[s]”. One interviewee noted that “women feel they need to prove a lot more and work a lot harder”. Another noted, women researchers “should be very ambitious and show that they can do everything like travelling or going for workshops anywhere in the world”. Two interviewees mentioned that they work overtime, even if it is not expected from them (“we are trying to be aware of gender and mental health as well, but I still feel guilty when I don’t work”). Another interviewee associated the higher workload with her skills (“they give me more work. I hope because I’m clever (laughter). I have more skills than the male researcher in my lab”).
Sometimes implicit biases were described in terms of how women are treated in specific situations. One interviewee felt that men are often assumed to be reliable professionals capable of doing excellent work, whereas if a “good logic” or “elegant solution” is presented by a woman, since it is not expected, it is considered unusual and “impressive”. Another interviewee noted that this perception (of lower technical competence) means that their mistakes “carry much bigger weight” than mistakes made by men, because a woman researcher who makes a mistake is considered as proof of the stereotype that she is incapable, whereas men researchers would be treated more charitably in similar situations. When it comes to being considered for more senior positions, “people may just assume that you might not want to get to senior positions. They might assume that you might want to have a lower stress role”. The perception that women who have family duties are less willing to work was believed to have a real impact on women’s involvement in collaborations and subsequent publications (“they think women are not involved with the work but with personal things, so they will not be willing to work more or they would not be willing to work overtime, but no, that’s not the case”). One interviewee believed these “unconscious biases” may be the reason why “we’re not getting enough women to these high levels, to these professorships”.
Negative perceptions of women’s expertise and accomplishments
Relevant to the previous theme, although more specific (i.e., cases wherein women’s expertise and professional accomplishments are negatively perceived), seven interviewees felt that because of their gender, their expertise is not always taken into account and their voice is not heard in (technical) discussions, thereby negatively affecting their engagement in projects and publications. When specifically asked about their DCU supervisors and mentors, none of the interviewees recalled being undermined or unfavourably perceived by them, but four participants mentioned having seen this attitude from other colleagues and partners from the industry. They noted that although opportunities for involvement in collaborative projects between academia and industry might be equal for men and women, “the industrial partner, they have lower expectations of women”. Having their expertise undermined was also mentioned in discussions about women’s citation records. One interviewee believed it is in people’s “nature” to assume that men do a better job compared to women, so they might overlook the research and publications where women are listed as first or last authors, thereby lowering the average citation record of women.
Two participants reported having had their achievements discredited by those who associated women’s success with gender equity policies. The first interviewee described a situation in which she received an award in her field, and instead of being praised, her success was brushed off by people saying “they wanted a woman anyway”. The second interviewee had similar experiences when she was invited to prestigious events (“I’ve been asked to speak numerous times and people were like ‘oh, they needed a woman’. Well, yeah, but I also do pretty good work”).
When asked about the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI) aimed to award forty-five senior positions to address women’s under-representation in academia , fourteen participants asserted that this is an important and urgent idea to compensate for women’s underrepresentation, yet most of them had reservations about it. One participant called it “a necessary evil”, while another said, “if it was totally equal [between men and women researchers] we wouldn’t need that help”. More importantly, only five participants felt entirely comfortable about accepting such a position. The rest anticipated that these promotions would be negatively perceived, and thus reinforce the stereotype about women’s alleged lack of competence, thereby negatively affecting women’s confidence and engagement in projects or publications. One interviewee said, “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”. Another interviewee noted, “I can appreciate the motivation behind it. I don’t like the fact it’s necessary. People that I’ve spoken to 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’s 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!”.
High professional standards
As a general rule, when talking about their academic career, interviewees were quite confident that they have worked hard and have good knowledge of their field. However, some of the same individuals also said that their work is not “good enough”, that “they are not the most qualified”, and that sometimes their success was all down to “luck” or perhaps gender equity policies.
Although four interviewees acknowledged that securing more senior positions often provides better access to resources and results in more publications, they believed that they are less likely to apply for new positions than men researchers, as they do not feel confident about their work and are too demanding of themselves when submitting an application. According to one interviewee, “I was encouraged to apply for it [new position] this year, but I didn’t feel comfortable because I didn’t think I had enough publications”. Another interviewee described this as a general difference between men and women:
If there was a job going and a man was looking at it and he could do 20% of things at the requirements, he’d go: Oh, yeah, I can do 20%, I’ll be able to do the rest of the things, so I put myself forward. Whereas a woman might look at it and she’ll be like: There’s 20% that I can’t do from that list, I don’t know if I’d be suitable so I don’t put myself forward.Footnote 1
According to another interviewee, “I think we take maybe more time to get a solution, but once you get the solution it’s going to work”. This suggests that some women may take more time to publish a piece that is satisfactory for them and, therefore, they may publish less often. A similar perspective was offered by another interviewee about conference presentations: “Men tend to submit more papers, because they believe it’s good, so maybe they get to travel more than women”. Two interviewees believed that the pressure in academia to publish more impacts upon research quality, suggesting that the focus on quantity over quality results in not appreciating some women researchers who have high standards and pay special attention to the quality of their publications.
Women’s high standards were also mentioned by interviewees who had worked with both men and women mentors, noting that some women supervisors might put more emphasis on quality or set strict learning objectives for mentees, thereby prolonging the required time to publish a paper for themselves and mentees (“She has more expectations from me than my man supervisor. I guess she is stricter and more particular and ambitious”). Another interviewee noted, “My woman supervisor is more like ‘okay, you can do that maybe’ or she just gives you a few ideas, but without [immediately] telling you what to do. And my man supervisor is more like ‘yeah, you have to do that’”. This suggests that her man supervisor is more easy-going with his mentees. One interviewee described higher standards in mentorship in terms of engagement and communication. Compared to him, she is “much more engaged to help or to suggest something”. Furthermore, another interviewee noted the differences in mentors’ approaches to authorship attribution, saying, “she asked me to be very careful in who I put as a co-author. Like, if someone did no work then they wouldn’t be a co-author. Right now it’s a little bit of a matter of friendship or just because there is a PI somewhere else, you may have to put his name [in the authorship byline]”. In an effort to explain women supervisors’ higher standards, one interviewee noted,
I guess that any of the women PIs that I’ve come across, who would be at the kind of senior level, tend to be exceptional. They tend to have excelled significantly. Some men PIs don’t seem to have as much drive. I feel like some of the men counterparts maybe haven’t had as much adversity to get to that point. So, therefore they may not have the same level of drive or determination.
Ten participants acknowledged the difficulties of balancing family and professional responsibilities and advocated for women researchers with (young) children. The intersection of family responsibilities and gender were mostly described in terms of motherhood. One researcher made a direct link between having young children and her publications (“I think that’s the main reason that I have fewer publications these years”). She added that one of her friends who was based in another Irish university ended up leaving academia and went to the industry because “when she did the interview [for a lectureship position], the examiner asked her a publication question and why she didn’t have publications in the recent years. Well, she had two kids during these years and she’s super busy with family and research, so she didn’t get the lecture position.” Two interviewees highlighted the challenges of travelling for mothers (“A woman who has a child couldn’t be away, maybe two or three days would be too long because of her child”; “woman researchers with kids wouldn’t have much support to travel”).
The impact of family on work and publications was not the same for all women. One interviewee noted that she shoulders the social demand placed on her by what she called “traditional norms”, which hold women responsible for taking care of the house and the family. She advocated for women in academia who come from traditional backgrounds wherein “husbands or fathers, they don’t help, their duties are different, and they have more freedom”. Another interviewee noted that although her husband is equally involved in childcare responsibilities, she feels more emotionally engaged:
Women still may be the primary nurturer of a child, maybe just their thoughts or they are more likely to be affected by it. Maybe that is more of an effect on women than it is on men, even if there is more kind of gender balance in childcare.
That said, two interviewees highlighted the flexibility of working hours in academia as an advantage:
I could work around [interviewee’s child] being off school and everything; so I think from that point of view, academia is a really good place to work. You wouldn’t necessarily get the same opportunity in industry.
The intersection of respondents’ nationality and gender were mainly mentioned by non-Irish and non-EU interviewees (N = 11). Participants thought that being non-Irish and non-European has a negative impact on their involvement in projects and conference attendance, both of which influence their publications. Nine interviewees who were non-European citizens pointed out regular difficulties such as dealing with immigration services, learning about specific rules that apply to their situation, and figuring out support mechanisms for maternity leave.
Non-Irish interviewees felt that their chances of getting into a new position or getting involved in a new project are lower than their Irish counterparts, even if their experience and competencies were similar or slightly higher. One interviewee spoke of the experience of her non-Irish friends who had trouble securing an academic position at another Irish university:
My friends, one is [a European nationality] and another is [a non-European nationality]. They are very good at their area. They have a lot of publications and teaching experience; they are quite qualified for a lecturer position. Once they applied, they were told to do a teaching presentation. When Irish candidates finished presenting, everyone was just clapping, and said, “oh, so good”, but when non-Irish candidates finished presenting, nobody was clapping and nobody said anything. Yeah, but for their work experience, they actually had more publications than that Irish candidate and they had been in the post-doc position much longer than him as well. But finally the Irish person got the position.
The same concern was also raised by a non-Irish participant about the positions offered through SALI (“they will get all of them from Ireland”). Citing logistical difficulties and higher costs, one Irish interviewee confirmed some of these suspicions, noting that when:
The project needs to start soon, we need to get someone on board and the visas and issues in getting someone from a non-EU country here, logistics are harder. So, probably, if we have equal candidates of equal merit, we’d go with the European or the Irish … the other thing is the fees aspect for EU versus non-EU.
Non-Irish researchers noted that sometimes they struggle with being heard and appreciated in academic environments. One non-EU researcher was frustrated because her receipt of a prestigious grant was not promoted on the DCU website. She felt that smaller achievements of Irish researchers are under the spotlight more regularly. As highlighted by two interviewee, sometimes past achievements are disregarded because of nationality (“They [colleagues] say like ‘oh, you’re from [country], you guys have nothing there so like … is the education even good? Can I trust your grades that came with you?’”; “They feel like [the interviewee’s nationality] are all kind of poor or not educated or something”). Another interviewee said, “I have noticed in different groups for example, that if you’re not Irish, you can’t talk with them”, suggesting that sometimes non-native, non-Irish persons are ignored in conversations.
2. Factors that support women’s engagement in research publication
We identify three factors that, according to the interviewees, may positively impact chances for publication: (1) networking and research communication; (2) collaboration with other institutions; and (3) funding acquisition.
Networking and research communication
The importance of maintaining good relationships with other academics, not only in DCU but also outside of it, was discussed by nine interviewees. Personal and international connections were believed to affect the communication of published work and improve chances for future collaboration and publication. Three participants said that it is the responsibility of the researcher to seek information about collaboration possibilities and that they need to enhance the visibility of their work to become well-known.
Responding to the Likert type questions, twelve interviewees agreed or strongly agreed that social/educational/training activities at DCU are equally welcoming to both men and women. One interviewee, who had worked in industry, described DCU as a more inclusive environment for women (“when I worked in industry, I didn’t play golf, so immediately I was side-lined … here, there isn’t anything like that”).
Three participants noted that communication of work through social media and public talks positively impacts future collaborations and the number of citations. This is an area where men researchers seem to be more fortunate:
He [colleague] told me that he thinks … if he gives one talk, people tend to pay attention a bit more and then he gets invited to more stuff … I don’t know, maybe a man, a white man speaking about stuff, it’s more reliable than a woman talking about it.
Another interviewee suggested that men researchers are more successful in the social media engagement (“[A man colleague] does lots of things that are really clever, really smart, he is really active on Twitter, so his paper is tweeted about”). Two interviewees who praised men colleagues’ activities on social media did not seem comfortable in promoting their work in a similar way.
Collaborations with other institutions
Responding to the Likert type questions, twelve interviewees agreed or strongly agreed that they have the same opportunity as their colleagues to be involved in international collaborations. Whilst acknowledging that “collaborations with other researchers” and institutions, especially “interdisciplinary projects”, are among the most effective ways of publishing more often and receiving more citations, three participants reported having a hard time in certain projects, particularly those that involve international travel or working with industry partners. Two interviewees mentioned that in collaborative projects, it is mostly men who get to present their work in international conferences (“it’s more pressure for me, you know? I don’t have time to travel. I’m working for the same conference, but the guy went to the conference. I just have less time than him to prepare my abstract”; “Friend of mine (...) she has the name on the paper as well but her supervisor asked men researchers to present in a conference”). One of these interviewees believed that preferences for the involvement of men might be due to the idea that men “can handle themselves more easily” or that they are more flexible about the place to stay and the means of travel, thereby reducing the expenses for the project. Another interviewee mentioned that, in relation to collaboration with industrial partners, “sometimes for certain projects or company visits which are deemed a bit rough, the preference is to send men researchers”. Moreover, women researchers may be subject to a different communication style (“the industrial partner ( …) they’re kind of afraid of talking directly to a women researcher. And they may talk to the PI [Principal Investigator] about it and then ask the PI to talk to women”).
Other interviewees did not believe in systemic/institutionalised differences in research travel and collaboration between men and women. One interviewee noted that at some stage she was overwhelmed by the amount of travelling that she had to do for various international collaborations, and it is her own choice not to travel more. Another participant considered herself “fortunate” in terms of travelling for international collaborations, as she did not have any family duties or visa issues that non-EU residents have to deal with.
Six interviewees discussed the importance of funding for research projects and its impact on recipients’ power in developing and coordinating projects. They noted that funding not only enables “work”, “experiments” and recruitment of PhD candidates and postdoctoral researchers, but also empowers them in collaborative projects in terms of making decisions about subsequent publications (e.g., choosing the target journal, co-authors, authorship order). Four interviewees noted that as a “rule”, funding recipients also secure the better (last) position in the byline. Three participants mentioned the importance of funding for research travel, international partnerships and the visibility of their work (“I had funding enough to go and put myself in conferences, and you know, I did webinars and everything … so you get noticed”).
One interviewee mentioned the difficulties of receiving funding, especially for early-career researchers:
To get grants you need to have a good track record. You need to have the good ideas and you need to show that you are able to follow through, and get money and get things packed tight … I compete with those who are more likely to deliver because they’ve done it before; so it can be quite challenging just to kind of, get off the grind and get up and running.
This suggests that successful funding applications would increase the chances of getting funds again. Another participant suggested that although gender is not a decisive criterion for funders, the eligibility criteria in securing funds create a cyclical disparity (“You can’t just look at publications in isolation, you have to link [it] to the funding that people have [which allows them to publish]”). She noted that women are less likely to be awarded grants because the eligibility criteria for grants do not take into consideration their obstacles for publication. This issue was further elaborated by another interviewee: “if you’re compared with the person who doesn’t have any career break, it will be difficult”.