Women left out of impact assessments

Consideration should be given to the research impact agenda’s effects on female academics, say Julie Davies and Emily Yarrow.

27 March 2018

Julie Davies and Emily Yarrow



Julie Davies

Emily Yarrow

The increasing value attached to the impact agenda makes clear that it is here to stay. But what about its potential effects on female academics? In an analysis of impact case study submissions to the business and management studies unit of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014, we found that women are significantly under-represented.

Several factors contributed to the low engagement of women in the assessment, which we identified through further investigations into publically available REF impact cases and interviews with REF case writers and panel members. These include the time required to evidence impact and to engage with research users to design and carry out impactful research outside the UK academy. These factors are compounded by existing inequalities in academia, such as the declining number of female professors in a third of universities, networks of male researchers who support each other’s research outputs, the predominance of male senior decision-makers for research in universities, and recruiters who still draw more men than women to top positions.

There is clearly scope to foster further inclusion of women in the research impact agenda through doctoral education and local initiatives. For example, senior leaders in institutions might consider the creation of a new career path of ‘REF impact case fellows’, who are rewarded for their focus on impact.

Time pressures

Our findings so far reveal that, despite a wide range of topics and institutions being represented, only 30% (123 out of 410) of REF 2014 impact case studies submitted to the business and management studies unit of assessment included at least one woman in the research team. The same may be true for women academics in other countries and fields of research. Moreover, 51% of the 123 REF impact cases had no male academic in the team. In fact, the most commonly published REF cases that included a woman were sole authored. This might suggest it is less time-consuming for a female researcher in a UK business school simply to get on and write an impact case alone. However, the lack of team effort and fewer resources in such examples might result in poorer and lower-ranked cases — something yet to be investigated.

Interviews with REF impact case researchers suggest that the assessment does not sufficiently consider the ongoing care responsibilities undertaken by “encumbered” faculty members, predominantly women. As a result, the research impact agenda exacerbates existing inequalities caused by maternity leave and caring responsibilities, which take time from developing impacts.

In addition to the substantial hours required for travel and engagement with research users and the media, impact also requires considerable funding as an incentive for partnership working, and large teams. These are conditions to which women have historically been denied proportionate access. The impact agenda could set back gains achieved by diversity policies for women academics.

Time, resources, and workloads are not the only issues affecting representation. Recognition, gendered communication styles, greater confidence amongst male researchers to self-promotion, bias against certain types of impact cases such as those focusing on gender, and motivation to engage in REF impact cases, were all cited as key issues affecting women researcher’s visibility in impact case narratives.

These invisible, often unchallenged barriers, remain despite initiatives such as Athena SWAN, a long-running programme that recognizes institutional efforts to advance women’s careers in scientific and technical fields, and the more recent REF 2021 Equality and Diversity Advisory Panel. They add hurdles to evaluating equal contributions of women in academia and the societal and other impacts of their academic research.

A resounding “yes”

Based on our research, perceptions of what constitutes positive impact on society are constructed by those in powerful positions who design institutional principles to reward behaviours on the basis of so-called “meritocracy”.

Policy and organisational designs based on merit, however, maintain existing (gendered) systems and cultures that advantage western white men. So, while male university researchers gain over the course of their careers from the ‘Matthew effect’, women are subjected to gendered systems and attitudes that undermine the contributions of women academics — what Margaret Rossiter calls the ‘Matilda effect’.

It is also significant to note that the ability to produce artefacts such as impact case studies will become increasingly important in hiring and promotional criteria within British higher education and in countries like Australia and New Zealand, where the impact agenda is growing in importance. This has obvious consequences for academic careers.

So, should we encourage women to be more involved in REF impact cases, particularly leading them? A resounding yes!

There is clearly scope for the further inclusion of women in the impact agenda and in doctoral education, ensuring the positive societal impacts of research are not inherently gendered, but have space for the constructive contribution of women scholars.

The creation of a REF impact case fellow career track would mirror new career pathways in the same way business schools recognise clinical professors, who are awarded the title of ‘professor’ based on scholarship in teaching or an excellent profile in executive education. Institutional and individual support — for example, with funding for REF impact case design and implementation, fair allocations for impact work to be included in workload allocation models, and input from journalists and REF impact consultants — can also help.

We need to encourage those who wish to engage in the impact agenda with support that boosts rather than detracts from their research outputs and promotion prospects. We would hope to see more women involved in impact cases and leading cases across all units of assessment in REF 2021, provided this improves their career aspirations.

Julie Davies is HR subject group leader at Huddersfield Business School. She is the UK lead for the five-country Erasmus Plus-funded project Human Resource Management in Regional Small and Medium Enterprises and she co-directs the Association of Asia-Pacific Business Schools deans’ programme. Davies tweets @JulieDaviesUK.

*Emily Yarrow is a teaching fellow and researcher at the University of Edinburgh Business School. To date, her research has focused on the impact of research evaluation on female academic careers, women’s lived experiences in organisations, pensions, and the experiences of older workers. Yarrow tweets @Emilyyarrow1. *

This article was originally posted on the LSE Impact Blog.


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