Researchers from The University of Queensland (UQ) and Monash University have used the principles of ecology to explain why women are being driven out of academia.

The results of the study, published in the ecology peer-reviewed journal Oikos, reveal how a gender imbalance in science and academia is maintained by institutional barriers.

Dr Kate O'Brien from the UQ School of Chemical Engineering said in ecology a species can only establish itself and develop if the population exceeds a certain threshold.

“It's similar for researchers and academics who need to reach a certain point before they can attract more funding, more students to teach and high quality collaborators which can increase their research productivity,” she said.

“Yet there are barriers which prevent women from reaching this point.”

One of these barriers is the tendency of female academics towards part-time work in order to balance family and work commitments.

Working part-time is rare in academia while university managers find it difficult to assess the research performance of part-time staff using traditional methods.

The performance of academics and researchers is increasingly assessed using set metrics such as the number of papers produced in a year or the number of citations the research generates.

While these metrics can promote research output within an organization, they can also undermine diversity, which in ecological terms is fatal to a species as it underpins resilience.

“To use the ecology analogy, research productivity is similar to the birth rate of a new species,” Dr O'Brien said.

“Both need to exceed a critical rate if the population is going to grow and survive, or the academic is to become established in their field.

“However, research metrics are strongly biased towards full-time continuous employment and penalise academics who take time off before they become established.”

The ecological model also suggests that if women have children before becoming established as an academic, they will struggle to remain competitive with their full-time peers.

This explains drift of women from research into teaching, where performance is assessed on current rather than accumulated historical performance.

To address the gender imbalance Dr O'Brien and Associate Professor Karen Hapgood suggest that women who go part-time should be strategic and concentrate on either research or teaching.

In turn university managers should be cautious in judging success using metrics, and implement schemes to ensure that part-time work and career breaks are not “one-way tickets” out of research.

“The ecological approach demonstrates that any system which operates on a narrow criteria, be it a forest or a faculty, undermines itself by reducing both diversity and the pool of talent from which our researchers are drawn,” Dr O'Brien said.

“In a working environment dominated by those working full-time women need to be brave and be prepared to be the odd ones out.”