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Communications of the ACM


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!




I am very skeptical when I read an article that is labelled 'gender discrimination', mentions (rightfully) that scientists are less productive when they have (small) children, and then I see statistics comparing women and men (and their salaries). I do not know what happens in the UK, but there are countries where women and men have equal rights to taking parental leave (and actually no single parent can take the total time of the parental leave). Shouldn't the article be taking about 'parental leave' instead of 'maternity leave'?

Not to mention that having children is actually a choice... Why should researchers in academia be evaluated by different criteria depending on their life choices or actually even based on their sexual preferences?

Judy Robertson

Thanks for your contribution. Two points of information about the UK, where the REF takes place: 1) currently men do not have equal rights to take parental leave as women although there are discussions about changing this. 2) The REF document itself refers to maternity leave rather than parental leave.
I would love it if there were equal paternity rights in the Uk. But as they are not, I stand by my original arguments on the basis that making the choice to have children something which women researchers are penalised for more than men. Cheers Judy


In response to the comment: Without a question, having small children will affect a person's productivity at least temporarily. This is true for both men and women. However, it does remain true that in most households, the mom ends-up doing a lot more than the dad with respect to children and thus the impact of having children on women remains much greater than the impact of having children on men. It is further extremely taxing on the body to go through pregnancy, delivery, and nursing. So the comparison should really be across four groups: women with/without children and men with/without children.

But an important point is that these disruptions are temporary. Out of a career that can last 40 years, we should be able to tolerate some disruptions here and there, whatever the reason. It would be a shame if all people wanting to have children were forced to drop out of academia. Similarly, it would be a shame if all people who got sick or had some other temporary problem had to drop out of academia.


I agree with anonymous. Judy should have been watching her language more carefully. Even if the REF document refers to maternity leave, Judy can make a choice and use gender neutral language. Apparently she has not made that choice. Which saddens me as both a father and a researcher. And also the CACM blog editors have not chosen to use gender neutral language. In my opinion this is something editors should take care of when authors submit an article to the blog.

On the same line Judy and the editors of this blog have made a choice to cite numbers of men and women in science whereas the actual problem being discussed is having a family and being in science. I would much more be interested in the percentage of professors with children. And how many researchers in general (men and women) drop out of academia because of having a family. I know quite some male researchers that went to industry just so they can feed their children. Struggling with having children and running an academic career is not just a female challenge. It is a general problem. Just because men are more numerous in computer science does not mean that they do not struggle with work live balance and it also does not mean that their families are less worth of our care as a community. Please, I urge you to watch your language more carefully in the future and not use sexist and discriminatory language when taking about family issues.

I very much like the proposal of reducing the required output by one paper per child--for any parent!


In the interests of reporting the REF issue accurately I chose to use the phrase "maternity leave". In this case, the issue actually is *women* in research in the UK because of UK government policy where only females can take statutory parental leave beyond 3 weeks. I was highlighting the sexist and discriminatory language of these policies to make people aware of the issue.
There is indeed a more general issue relating to family life and research which would also make an interesting article in the future. It's just that I was focussing on the more specific issue here.


Child-bearing certainly requires more from the mother in the womb and during earliest ages, and I agree that the 14-month threshold is ridiculous for what it's supposed to compensate.
But I'm sorry that children in discussions lke this oen seem to be such an afterthought. My children are much more precious, and their accolades and love are much more treasured, than any other earthly awards.

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