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Gender Discrimination in the U.K. Research Excellence Framework

Judy Robertson

All over the U.K., academics are frantically writing papers. Yes, I know academics everywhere are frantically writing papers–there are after all over a million papers published per year. But UK academics are writing now to publish in high-impact journals in time for the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), the result of which determines how government block funding for research is allocated. We are meant to publish four world-beating Turing-award level papers between 2008 and 2014 to bring in the maximum funding for our cash-strapped departments. However, this is not a post about the problems of channelling researchers’ efforts into stalking their own bibliometrics on Publish or Perish instead of doing something productive. This is a post about how the REF discriminates against female researchers. It's an issue that could prevent the recruitment of more female computer science academics (or encourage existing ones to leave) at a time when, as a discipline, we should be trying to address the gender imbalance.

You might expect that female researchers who have been on maternity leave during the REF period would be expected to produce a number of papers proportional to their time spent at work in that period. No. Instead, the draft REF guidelines indicate that women will be expected to produce one paper fewer only if they have taken more than 14 months off for maternity during the REF period. Because of the way statutory maternity leave works in the U.K., it is common to take between six months and a year off. So to qualify to produce one less journal paper output, you’d probably need to produce more than two human outputs (babies!) over five years(See for a good summary.)  An alternative proposal is to reduce the REF output by one paper for each child. I do find it bizarre- almost comical-to equate the effort of carrying, delivering, and raising a child to researching and writing a paper, but at least this proposal acknowledges that children have an impact on their carers’ careers.

This proposal, if carried out, would further divide academia along gender lines. It’s already a fairly bleak situation. In Europe, only 18% of professors are female, only 9% of universities have a female head , and there is a pay gap of 20% in the US.  An interesting article in the Times Higher from last year cites studies which show that women’s publication output falls after childbirth, although it does bounce back later. Further, in countries which invest in high quality childcare, female researchers are more productive. So it is not inevitable that women who have had children must be less effective researchers in the long run. It is however probable that their productivity will drop in the period when they take maternity leave.  It would be strange indeed if being off work for six months to a year didn't affect one's output.

What about computer science in particular? A report from the main research council which funds computer science in the UK (EPSRC) shows that only 13% of grants are awarded to female researchers. Of course, the prospects in the computing industry outside academia are not good either. In the US, an NCWIT report states that there is a gender pay gap in CS jobs  starting at 7% and increasing to 11% for workers with more than 15 years experience. Also worrying is the trend reported in the same source that two years after graduation from CS degrees, only one third of women remain in science and technology jobs. 

The odds are stacked against women succeeding in academia, and in computer science  as it is. The discrimination built into the REF would penalise women who have had children, increasing their stress at work and reducing their chances of promotion. The good news is that the REF document is still under consultation. There is a chance to change the way the REF is conducted by writing comments here before October 5th. Please do this for your sister computer scientists!


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