By Caleb Gemmell and Catherine Webb
The Equity Office – Te Ara Tautika – at the University of Auckland has published an equity profile of the university for 2014. The purpose of these yearly publications is admirable – to transparently report how the university is progressing towards its goals of ethnic, gender and disability equity. Upon reading it, however, we were puzzled by the presentation of some of the data. So, in the helpful spirit of our previous Not Such a Silly Idea blog series, we started doing a little deconstruction.
Page 47 is about women in the ‘academic pipeline for advancement to senior positions. It shows the presence of women in the university from junior positions (undergraduate students) through to senior positions (professors).
There are several issues with this graph. First of all, can you tell what the Y axis is trying to measure? The numbers are too small to be a sheer headcount. A percentage, then. Eventually, we worked out that this is the percentage made up by women of the total FTE (full-time equivalent). Please label your axes.
Secondly, this graph looks deceptively like a time-series. It gives the impression that we are following a cohort of women over time through their academic careers (which would actually be very useful, by the way). However, the data is simply a snapshot in time across many categories. Truly, there is no reason for this data to be presented in a line graph; this is an ordinal scale, and the categories are discreet. It would be better represented by something like a bar chart.
The report’s use of the term ‘academic pipeline’ to describe the chart suggests that the report’s authors are attempting to show the retention of women as they progress through university careers, to gain an idea of where and with what magnitude women drop out of academia. Unfortunately, the overall impression we get from this graph – that women’s university careers tend to wane above Assistant Lecturer until an uptick in the Senior Leadership Team – is not a valid conclusion to draw from a snapshot of data that compares the results of non-contemporary cohorts.
Another reason the pipeline analogy is inappropriate here is that it implies it is normal to progress from student to staff, and from teaching staff to management. This is not the norm. It is fairly unusual to enter the workforce as a teaching academic with little prior experience. The inclusion of the Senior Leadership Team on the end of this progression is especially strange, since many of those positions are not academic at all – for instance, directors of HR, library, or finance – and certainly don’t require you to be a professor first!
So, we tried to present the Equity Office’s information in a more useful way.
This pulls out the clearest information the data has to offer, showing how the gender composition of each academic position has changed since 2000. Whereas the line graph appeared to prompt lateral comparison, this graph highlights the change over time within each category. It cannot be called a pipeline, but it is useful!
You can see that there is now a more granular breakdown, including HoDs and deans. We did this to be more informative and to smooth the sudden jolt between professors and senior leadership. Something we noticed, apart from the greatly improved gender ratio in almost every category in 2014, was the huge change in the ‘Heads of Departments and Schools’ category. We realised that the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences (FMHS) were the only faculties which included both departments and schools, and that the schools were created additionally after 2000. That meant a greater number of heads in total, but not necessarily a greater proportion of women.
 The use of the category Assistant Lecturer, is its self curious, since no such employment position exists at the University of Auckland. The report’s authors say that the Assistant Lecturer category “…includes GTAs [graduate teaching assistants] tutors etc.” However, GTAs are typically postgraduate students, so would be represented twice in this data. The position of Tutor at UoA has not been in current use for several years, having been replaced by the position of Professional Teaching Fellow (PTF), which is presumably included in the etc. Missing from data are post-doctoral fellows, research fellows and senior research fellows. These positions often make up a sizable fract of many departments, the latter two positions being comparable in seniority to the positions of Lecturer and Senior Lecturer. The data is further confused by the fact that the mid-ranges of the pipeline might be better thought to consist of three parallel streams: PTFs (responisible for teaching only), Research Fellows (typically engaged in research, but not teaching), and Lecturers (engaged in both research and teaching).