Is there a systemic gender bias in knowledge production? A look at UK Universities and Think Tanks

29 June 2015
SERIES Women in think tanks 11 items

Earlier in the series, Priyanthi Fernando discussed gendered forms of knowledge and how they affect the position of women and men in a knowledge organisation. She discussed her experience at CEPA and how the demographic of staff are predominantly women. I have also heard similar feelings at my own workplace, the Overseas Development Institute. Recently after giving an academic visitor the tour of the building, she remarked how it was a nice change to be surrounded by so many women researchers. She noted it would be a welcome change from her past employer. Despite being extremely talented she left academia, partly because she felt the institution largely dominated by men were crowding her style of research but also her possibility for advancement.

Through our discussions, we started to ask some questions. Are there more women in think tanks than in academic institutions? How does this reflect on the ownership of knowledge production?

Though the landscape is changing, there is evidence that UK academic institutions are still lagging behind with gender diversity. The institutional bias in academia is distinctive because it has a unique advancement system. Recently a study conducted of Cambridge academics determined that restricted male-oriented ways of assessing achievement in academia were failing to accommodate women in advancement. In “Do Babies Matter? Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower”, the book draws on several studies demonstrating that having children hinders women’s career where it has the opposite effect for men. In fact, many academic institutions struggle with how to handle maternity leave with regards to the tenure system.

A study conducted at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed to a systematic bias against women in faculties that commanded more wealth or prestige. Researchers tried to determine how faculty responded to requests from students whose names had distinct gender and cultural markers. The study demonstrated that faculty were less likely to write or meet students who were women and minorities. There were large disparities between different types of schools. For example, faculty at private schools were more likely to discriminate against women and minorities than public schools. Faculties in lucrative fields and natural sciences were more likely to discriminate than those in less lucrative fields or in the humanities.

While there has been increasing number of research on women in academia, very little research has been done about women’s advancement in think tanks. Think tanks have similar advancement systems to the private sector and don’t have as much ambiguity in maternity leave policies as academia with regard to tenure. While not completely free of bias, think tanks follow more mainstream maternity leave policies and cannot penalize a woman’s career advancement based on her choice for a family. Could it be that because think tanks have more mainstreamed workplace policies, there is less of an institutional gender bias in think tanks? Does this explain why there appear to be more women in think tanks than in academia?

Women are underrepresented in academia and in certain policy areas of think tanks

To explore this further I decided to do my own analysis. Focusing on UK institutions working in the area of international development, I compared the top five UK academic institutions with the top five UK think tanks. Using the 2014 Global Go to Think Tank Index Report as a reference to choose a sample of think tanks, I looked at the percentage of women researchers in the top five UK international development think tanks. The 2014 Global Go to Think Tank Index Report looks at the top 50 think tanks by subject area. In the area of international development, there were only five UK think tanks and they are all represented in Table 1. Then through the REF 2014 guide, I picked the top five UK academic institutions who submitted REF submissions in the “Anthropology and Development Studies” and calculated the percentage of women researchers there.

Table 1. Gender distribution of international development academic faculties and think tanks

Anthropology and Development studies academic institutions Women Men
Brunel University 3 (33%) 6 (66%)
Cambridge University 17 (44%) 22 (56%)
Durham University 14 (50%) 14 (50%)
University of East Anglia 8 (29%) 20 (71%)
Goldsmiths University 5 (38%) 8 (62%)
Average 39% 61%
International development think tanks Women Men
Chatham house 68 (32%) 147 (68%)
Overseas Development Institute 109 (56%) 87 (44%)
Institute of Development Studies 134 (59%) 95 (41%)
Centre for the Study of African Economies 24 (26%) 68 (74%)
International Institute for Environment and Development 61 (66%) 32 (34%)
Average 47% 53%

Based on the numbers, approximately 39% of the academics who submitted REF results under the heading of anthropology and international development are women. In contrast, 47% of researchers in international development think tanks are women. This is a small dataset, and it is not clear whether the REF figures cover all the research staff in the academic organisations. However, some of the contrasting figures are quite striking. To explore this idea further, I then looked at economic institutions, which have been stereotyped as using skills where men are predominantly favoured. This is in contrast to anthropology and development studies where it has been stereotyped as using skills where women are predominantly favoured.

There are six UK institutions in the Global Go to Think Tank Index Report for the top domestic economic think tanks. Using the top five I calculated the number of women researchers in those institutions. Again through the REF 2014 guide, I picked the top five UK academic institutions that submitted an REF submission in the “Economic Studies” and calculated the percentage of women researchers there.

Table 2. Gender distribution of Economics academic faculties and think tanks

Economics academic institutions Women Men
Birkbeck University 8 (30%) 19 (70%)
Birmingham University 4 (16%) 21 (84%)
Bristol University 5 (25%) 15 (75%)
Brunel University 7 (26%) 20 (74%)
Cambridge 7 (26%) 20 (74%)
Average 24% 76%
Domestic Economic think tanks Women Men
Adam Smith Institute 2 (9%) 20 (91%)
Centre for Economic Policy Research 101 (13%) 680 (87%)
Institute of Fiscal Studies 4 (14%) 24 (86%)
Institute of Economic Affairs 19 (40%) 28 (60%)
National Institute of Economic and Social Research 68 (32%) 147 (68%)
Average 24% 76%

Although the percentage of women is the same in both (24%), it is markedly lower than both types of institution working in international development. This may point to a different gendered politicisation of knowledge in Economics to those in Anthropology and development studies.

Further research is needed to understand why women are underrepresented in knowledge production

Comparing the gendered dynamics of knowledge between academia and think tanks is an important issue to analyse. Gender barriers are often studied in one industry in silo but rarely do we compare the gendered political economies between institutions. Institutional discrimination might change the nature of the knowledge produced as it can cause over-representation of major demographic groups, as is the case in academia. Whoever produces and owns the knowledge has the most autonomy over what topics are researched, how they are researched, and inevitably who the research impacts. Ensuring researchers are diverse and representational of different minorities is a strong pathway to ensuring research benefits all of us in society.

This was a short study using datasets that may be incomplete. While the REF data is the most comprehensive dataset I could find, it is not clear whether or not it contains the full number of staff in all academic institutions. University websites do not provide the information in a uniform way so it has not been possible to verify the REF figures. However, what I have found convinces me that this is an issue that requires further study.

While there are no figures for the gender distribution of senior managers in think tanks, there are now more women entering university than men and there is almost equal representation of women and men at lower professional levels. However, only 27.5% of senior managers in higher education and 20.5% of professors in the UK are women. It seems likely that there would be similar proportions of men and women applying for positions, which would suggest there may be biases in academia’s advancement opportunities.

Of course, we still do not know the causal links. More research will be needed to determine whether there is gender discrimination with regards to knowledge production but this small study explores the idea that because of hidden but systemic biases, perhaps women are being directed out of academia and into the think tank industry.