Female academics do significantly more internal administrative work than their male counterparts, according to an analysis of surveys performed at US institutions. Carried out by researchers at the University of California, Riverside, and Indiana University, the study found that the gender imbalance is highest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. While such internal work is vital for the day-to-day running of institutions, it is less valuable for promotions and salary increases than research and teaching, possibly hindering female career progression.

In one survey, which included 6875 tenure and tenure-track faculty at 140 US institutions, female academics reported spending, on average, 0.6 hours more per week than males on admin. The researchers also looked at 2012 data from a mandatory performance reporting system at two campuses belonging to a large public university. Covering 1378 faculty, it showed that women perform 12.4 admin activities per year, while men do just 10.9. In STEM subjects, women reported performing three more admin activities per year than men, compared with 2.5 for liberal arts and 0.3 for social sciences.

Internal imbalance

The researchers found that the imbalance was driven by internal admin – i.e. work related to the running of departments, schools or universities. Men perform an average of 6.1 internal-admin activities per year, while women do 7.3. There was, however, no significant gender difference in "external" admin work – performed for national or international communities.

Cassandra Guarino, professor of education and public policy from the University of California, Riverside, who led the work, told Physics World that women might be doing more internal-admin work because they are less likely to say no and are being asked more often.

Institutional norms

"Research shows that in negotiations women have more difficulty being assertive and they are more penalized for doing so," says Guarino, adding that individuals can find it hard to gauge how much of such work is normal. "To me, this is the solution to the problem: making it more transparent so that everyone can see what everybody is doing every year," she says. "It should be required of department chairs to monitor it, to make sure it doesn't become unbalanced."

Patricia Rankin, chair of the American Physical Society's committee on the status of women in physics, explains that if institutions consider it is up to the individual to deal with this on their own, the problem will persist. "If institutions want to retain their women faculty, they can help by setting norms," says Rankin. "You only have so much time – if you do more [admin] work there is less time for research. Unless the [work] is valued equally to research, this will slow women down in their career progression."

The study is presented in Research in Higher Education.