Being a university professor requires an inordinate amount of time. Anyone also responsible for children, family or anyone else, will likely struggle to succeed. This statement could be considered shocking, however a study conducted by researchers from Carleton University and the University of Ottawa, on careers of woman academics in Canadian universities, suggests just that.

The following article highlights the findings of a study authored by:

  • Merridee Bujaki, Carleton University
  • Ivy Bourgeault, University of Ottawa
  • Stephanie Gaudet, University of Ottawa

“My Path has not been a Standard Path:” Academia as a Bourdieusian Field and How Assumptions of an Unencumbered Life Disadvantage Women

Assumption of encumbered dedication

Historically post-secondary academic institutions have been structured around masculine norms, assuming faculty members are unencumbered to focus solely on work. Because of family demands, many faculty members are unable to devote themselves entirely to their academic careers, setting them at a disadvantage.

Researchers from Carleton University and the University of Ottawa set out to examine how masculine assumptions of an unencumbered life disadvantage women’s academic careers in Canada.

Twenty-two (22) women of various academic ranks across a range of disciplines at two universities in Canada were asked to share their experience.

The authors of the study hope to encourage innovation in structures and processes that benefit the careers and lives of all stakeholders in post-secondary education in Canada and beyond.

The masculine nature of universities and academic careers

Existing studies describe universities as masculine. In other words, the structures, processes, reward systems, norms, values, etc. of universities were constructed to reflect and value traits and behaviours deemed masculine. Consequently, universities value characteristics seen as masculine: efficiency, undivided commitment to work, long hours of work, drive, and ambition, among others.

Furthermore, existing studies argue that over time, the masculine traits have become ingrained and accepted as an unchangeable reality into which all academics have to fit. Feminine characteristics, on the other hand, are undervalued and under-rewarded within the academic field.

Striving to achieve career milestones based on a masculine model

This study examined the consequences of masculinized structures for female academics based upon ‘typical’ milestones in academic careers.

For many women the masculine structures in universities have the greatest impact through the assumption that faculty members are unencumbered by non-academic responsibilities and therefore have an unlimited number of hours to work.

Tenure expectations

For academics in Canada, achieving tenure is securing permanent admittance into the academic field. Tenure expectations generally require teaching, administration, continuous research and publications, and external grant applications.

New academics are typically required to apply for tenure within four to five years of completing their PhDs. For many women tenure and childbearing fall in the same time frame.

Dr. Bujaki, who had four young children during her pre-tenure period refers to the years before she received tenure as “the lost years of my life.” She said, “the physical and emotional demands both at work and in caring for the family are all-consuming.”


Many women working towards tenure are working under a great deal of stress to meet an ill-defined, increasing productivity standard for research.

Many interviewees mentioned deferring work to evenings and weekends in order to manage their workload.

Taking a closer look at research expectations, the study also examines women’s experiences with grant applications, research continuity, conference attendance and sabbaticals. All these areas play a role in helping academics meet research requirements to attain tenure.

Grants:  Academics interviewed found maternity leaves to adversely impact grant applications, relative to peers without career interruptions. Masculine structures in grant applications also impact the careers of more senior faculty members. Interviewees in their 50s, entering a phase of their lives comparatively unencumbered with daily caregiving responsibilities for children and ready to reinvigorate their research programs, expressed frustration at grant programs predominantly targeting early career academics.

Continuity: Tenure and promotion criteria also have expectations that scholarly activity and publishing be continuous. This is also based on the masculine career assumption that a university career should progress in a linear fashion. To the contrary, family formation and child-raising result in truncated, delayed, or non-linear career paths for many women.

Conferences: Conferences are an important way for academics to present their research, obtain feedback and network. The expectation for conference participation presumes that academics are freely available to travel. Although women interviewed in this study were aware of the importance of conferences, many struggled with the integration of caregiving responsibilities and conference travel.

Sabbatical: Sabbaticals are intended to give scholars a break from the usual work expectations to allow for a period to focus on research unencumbered by teaching and service responsibilities. Traditionally, an ideal sabbatical involved relocating for a full year.

“Nowadays, academics still take sabbaticals, however it is incredibly difficult to uproot children and a working spouse for a full year,” said Dr. Bujaki. “Most women academics travel for shorter periods of time for their sabbaticals and miss out on opportunities to travel and network with academics.”

Promotion to Full Professor

Promotion to Full Professor is based almost entirely on research productivity that is acknowledged to make a significant contribution to the professor’s academic discipline. Usually the definition of a ‘significant contribution’ is tied to an international reputation gained through publications, networking and service to external academic communities, such as serving as editor for a journal in their discipline.

Many women interviewed were aware of these expectations, but frequently turned down these opportunities because they felt they “couldn’t do more.”

Furthermore, the careers of women who have opted to focus on administrative opportunities within the field instead of research, were adversely affected. Existing studies show that regardless of how important administrative services are for the university, they are undervalued and under-rewarded in the criteria for promotion.

Career Consequences

The masculine structures of universities reward a limited range of behaviors and contributions. Interviewees often commented how their career progress has been slowed by non-work responsibilities. Structures built on a masculine career model fail to recognize the different trajectories that female academics’ life courses may take. Many women’s lives follow more circuitous routes characterized by periods of greater and lesser commitments of time for research, depending on care responsibilities.

Universities are also adversely affected by their failure to adopt structures and processes which value and reward a wide range of contributions. Case in point, many universities are struggling to find academics willing to serve in administrative roles. Additionally, historic structures and processes may not be working for either women or men, who today are also less likely to have an unencumbered life to dedicate to work.

Addressing issues that undermine women’s career advancement

The study encourages universities to analyze their structures and processes from a gender-based perspective and adjust those found to be masculine to address the differential impacts the current masculinized structures and processes have on female faculty.

Gender sensitive structures and processes at the institutional level may be beneficial in supporting all academics in achieving successful work-life integration. Additionally, universities are encouraged to accommodate, value and reward various career-life trajectories.

Dr. Bujaki stressed the importance of changing existing structures within universities.

“We know from the diversity literature, that being open to a diversity of peoples and viewpoints, leads to creativity and innovation,” she said. “Updating universities’ processes and structures to encourage women’s full engagement would benefit everyone.”

Article Notes

Research Highlight writer: This Research Highlight was written by Fiorella Jansen-Nicorescu. CRIW’s Research Highlights share relevant and actionable information about workplace inclusion with a broad audience.

References: This article references work of other scholars, a list of references is available from the first author, Merridee Bujaki.

Other Information

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This study was made possible, in part, through the generous support from the RBC Foundation.

About the Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW)
The Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW) is a research centre at the Sprott School of Business, Carleton University, focused on conducting and sharing research that advances diversity, equity and inclusion at work. By making research findings available to the public and connecting academia with the broader community, CRIW aims to advance knowledge and drive change towards more inclusive workplaces that welcome and support greater participation of all peoples.