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Female academics with partners less likely to collaborate internationally

International collaboration has become increasingly important in science, and in the research that builds academic careers. Many female academics, however, find themselves trapped behind a “glass fence” that keeps them from working internationally, according to an article published in September in the journal Studies in Higher Education. 

A partner with a full-time job is a major impediment for many female academics’ ability to engage in international collaborations, report Katrina Uhly of the Centre de Sociologie des Organisations in Paris; Laura Visser, a Ph.D. candidate at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands; and Kathrin Zippel of Northeastern University in Boston, in Gendered patterns in international research collaborations in academia. The study examined survey results from 13,000 academics in 10 countries. Though children also affected women’s ability to work internationally, the effect of their partners’ work situation was often even greater.

[P]artners, especially with full-time jobs and careers, are far less portable than children.

—Kathrin Zippel

“[W]e find that women engage less in international collaborations than men, and that complex gendered patterns exist regarding the impacts of partner employment status and children,” the authors write in the paper. “Partner employment status matters more than children in certain family arrangements, suggesting that the former constitutes a glass fence, potentially impacting women's access to cutting-edge international knowledge production and elite academic positions.” Childless single women, they found, were likelier to work abroad than childless women who had a partner with a full-time job.

“What we believe is common sense: that partners, especially with full-time jobs and careers, are far less portable than children,” Zippel says, as quoted at Inside Higher Ed. That effect is less strong, however, if the woman academic’s partner is also an academic. This may be because “academics understand how important it is to be involved internationally,” Zippel continued. Another reason may be that women’s academic partners can also find career-enhancing activities to pursue while abroad.

As we reported in 2013, a survey by Israel’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Space found women Ph.D. scientists much less likely to take a postdoc abroad—considered de rigueur for an academic career in that country—than comparable men. More than 77% of the men did postdocs in foreign countries, but 48% of the women did their postdocs at home.