Challenging career instability

Aline Miller is tackling the traditional limitations placed upon women who aspire to careers in research.

For young academics just starting their careers, it’s a precarious path through to a permanent lecturing role. It is usual for those looking to go into academia to undertake several post-doctoral positions before applying for a permanent post, but this creates years of instability and worry. This is something that Aline Miller, Professor of Biomolecular Engineering in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science, thinks could be having a detrimental effect on the number of women entering the industry.

“We need to be more supportive of women throughout their early career to encourage them to stay in the industry.”

“When I was entering the workplace, I knew I wanted to have a family and instability was not what I wanted for myself. That made me set my mind on getting a permanent position as soon as I could, and thankfully I did," Aline explains.

"But not everyone is able to secure a permanent position so early on in their careers, and even when they do, they can encounter old-fashioned and stereotypical views of women in the workplace. Especially if they are a woman with a family."

Tackling old-fashioned views

“There is still a generation above me where there is this idea that women with families shouldn’t be in the workplace. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all pervasive, but it is still there and that might be enough to deter some women,” says Aline.

In fact, Aline encountered displays of this attitude when she started a family of her own: “I was at a REF preparation lunch where we were accompanied by professors from other universities. I was about five or six months’ pregnant, so I couldn’t hide it anymore, and another attendee, when they noticed I was pregnant, asked me ‘what are your career ambitions now?’. A senior male colleague of mine leaned in and answered for me: ‘she’ll be slowing down because she’s having a family’."

Naturally, Aline was taken aback at someone answering for her, and dictating the trajectory of her career, especially as the topic of conversation was centred around becoming a professor before 40.

“When he said that I thought ‘right, I’m going to be a professor before I’m 40. I’m not going to let my children prevent me from doing that’ and I was, I was a professor before I was 40.” Aline says with a smile.

Aline Miller

“Define what success is to you and don’t compare where you are with others – you’re both walking different paths.”

The recruitment bias

However, some women lack the easy confidence that Aline has developed and may not be brave enough to forge their own path in the face of bias. This can be traced right back to job applications and the way women and men approach them. Research shows that women are less likely to apply for a role than men if they don’t think they meet all the qualification and selection criteria. However, when women do apply for a role, they are 16% more likely to be successful, suggesting that the recruitment process is the first hurdle on which women are getting stuck.

Some of the issues faced in the recruitment process can be attributed to unconscious bias, and many companies are now anonymising candidate applications. To make the recruitment process fairer, Aline thinks that more women in positions of power driving the recruitment process are necessary: “they know what it is like, they have been there. It is our responsibility as people with stable employment to ensure those applying for roles are represented equally throughout the process.

“We also need to be more proactive and supportive towards people, women especially, throughout their early career to encourage them to stay within the industry. We need to create a welcoming and supportive environment, challenge any instances of unconscious bias, and then make the recruitment process fair.”

While workplaces are moving in the right direction, there is still work to be done to embed inclusivity and equality in the recruitment process and throughout people’s careers. Aline herself spent several years working to champion women in science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) by leading the Athena SWAN applications for the Department of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science as well as for the University.

“Because of my own experiences as a woman in STEM, and now a woman with a family, gender equality is very much at the front of my mind. I know how hard it can be to progress your career when you’re trying to juggle your work and home life, and that’s what motivated me to get involved in Athena SWAN”. Aline also comments on how taking part in the Athena SWAN application process has given her a better oversight of the challenges faced by women, and that awards such as this are a positive step in raising awareness and overcoming the challenges faced by women in academia.

To have positive female role models such as Aline in senior positions in higher education, offers a beacon to women just starting their academic careers. Aline’s final words at the end of our call are words of encouragement to all women: “have the confidence to do it your way, there’s no right answer. Believe in yourself, and go for it, you’ll get to where you want to go. It’s better to try and fail than to never try. Also be careful to define what success is to you and don’t compare where you are with others as you’re both walking different paths. And while it’s hard to do, don’t get hung up on the numbers, they’re not everything!”.

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