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How far have women come in Higher Education?

Published: 08/03/2018

On International Women's Day we hand over our blog to Policy Project Assistant (and recent History Graduate) Sarah Osho to take the long view on progress for women in HE.

This International Women’s Day, we consider how far women have come in UK Higher Education (HE). Representation of women at leadership levels has been a long-standing concern for UK higher education institutions (HEIs) which they continue to strive to address. There has been some progress in the sector but there is much more to do.

The story so far

History was made when the first female Vice-Chancellor, Dame Lillian Penson (a professor of Modern History) was appointed in 1948 at the University of London. Since then, more and more women have been entering leadership roles and climbing up the career ladder. Now 21% of heads of institutions are women, with an indication of an increasing pace of change in the last five years. While still low, these figures are slightly better than those for much of the rest of the world: just 18% of the world’s 200 ‘top’ universities (THE ranking) are led by women.

Considering women in the UK now make up 56.5% of the student body and 53.8% of the whole HE workforce, the percentage of female academic staff is comparatively low at 45.3%. Their representation also declines dramatically at senior management levels, where only 27.5% of managers are women. Some argue that the reason for this is due to lack of confidence to apply for senior positions, while others point more to institutional sexism, or inflexible structures and cultures which work against those with caring responsibilities, who are more often women. ECU’s Athena SWAN Charter is designed to support HEIs to address gender inequality in relation to representation, progression of students into academia, staff journeys through career milestones, and the working environment for all staff.

Gender imbalance by discipline: step-change for students?

In Scotland, the introduction of Gender Action Plans (GAPs) has increased focused activity in Scottish colleges and higher education institutions to address severe student gender imbalances at subject level (defined as more than 75% of one gender). The Scottish Funding Council has set clear targets and milestones up to 2040 which also aims to improve the overall representation of men studying at undergraduate level at university.  Colleges and HEIs have developed plans under key themes of infrastructure, influencing the influencers, raising awareness and aspiration, encouraging applications, and supporting success. In addition to tackling student gender imbalances, links are made through GAPs to career progression for female staff, and gender based violence.

Complementing GAP activity, ECU’s Attracting Diversity project supports nine colleges and 13 HEIs in Scotland to develop their evidence base and implement creative initiatives to tackle barriers to student access in relation to gender, race, and socio-economic status. The Attracting Diversity project has prompted innovative practice and highlights the role of policies, processes and activities to tackle bias, discrimination and inequality. Effective activity to date ranges from amending entry criteria, changing course titles, and developing innovative schools outreach programmes.

Ensuring better gender representation amongst students will be an important long term approach to diversifying the later workforce.

What’s next?

There is a lot of work to be done on intersectionality. As a recent BME history graduate at the University of Essex, I could count on both hands the number of BME women, staff and students, I came across in my history department. Only 0.5% of UK female professors are Black. Evidently BME representation in academia is in need of great change.

ECU’s Race Equality Charter is part of this change. For example, it has been great to see through the Race Equality Charter, BME women, such as Professor Ijeoma Uchegbu at University College London, recognised for their work on a project which has led efforts to help support the promotion of black and minority academics. We should never forget that although the first female vice-chancellor took up office in 1948, it took until 2015 for a black woman – Baroness Valerie Amos – to do the same.

Let’s keep up the #pressforprogress.

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