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University College London: Academic careers framework increases women promoted to professor

Target Group
Academic staff
Professional and support staff
Initiative Theme
Career development
Initiative institution
University College London
Application type
Athena Swan Initiative
Publication date

Institution and Department: University College London
Author: Sara Mole and Kevin Coutinho


A new academic career framework was developed that created clearly defined pathways to promotion, recognising the value of citizenship as well as research and teaching. In the following two years, successful promotion applications doubled. The percentage of women professors increased by 3.5%, from 27% in 2015 to 30.7% in 2019.

About your organisation

UCL is a large research-intensive institution and among the UK and the world’s top multidisciplinary global universities. The main campus is spread over the heart of Bloomsbury, London, and a new campus UCL East at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford. UCL is a comprehensive multidisciplinary university. In 2023, there are 16,000 staff and 51,000 students from more than 150 different countries. 60% of students are in STEMM disciplines. 

UCL has long-standing engagement with Athena Swan (since 2005) and currently holds institutional Silver (2021) as well as REC Bronze (2019). UCL has 51 award-holding departments, including four golds. More than 70% of staff are located in departments holding Athena Swan awards (85% in STEMM departments). All departments are being supported to successfully apply for an Athena Swan award by 2025.

Purpose of the initiative

The goal was to increase the progression and representation of women at Grade 10 (Professor) for academic staff. The development of an institution-wide academic careers framework and senior academic promotion process - and criteria that were transparent and included citizenship contributions redressed perceptions that the promotions criteria - were not inclusive of the citizenship work undertaken by staff. 

Gendered patterns existed in staff career pathways (for example, women disproportionately taking on teaching responsibilities or student support or departmental administrative work). The new framework ensures that the diverse contributions staff make to UCL are recognised and so enables more equitable promotions.

The new academic careers framework aimed to ensure: 

  • Parity between research and teaching output. 
  • Broader assessment of contribution including external enterprise and engagement, and institutional citizenship. 
  • Increased diversity amongst applicants. 

Candidates are also encouraged to indicate any personal circumstances that may have affected their output. 

The ‘Citizenship’ criteria recognises activities that contribute to promoting positive collegial behaviour and the effective running of the administration and governance of UCL. Examples are given that include advancing equality, diversity and inclusion for staff and students. For promotion to Professor, this includes leadership of UCL’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion groups and committees, with impact for Athena Swan specifically mentioned. 

Alongside the changes to the academic careers framework, UCL put in place: 

  • promotions workshops to increase awareness and transparency of the process;
  • structured conversations relating to promotions during annual appraisals to support staff readiness for promotions; 
  • annual institution-wide promotions panels to reduce the risk of bias through local practice.

Description of the initiative

The new UCL Academic Careers Framework was a collaboration between the Office of the Vice-Provost (Education & Student Affairs) and UCL Human Resources. It was developed through wide consultation with academic colleagues across the university over a 2-year period, and launched in July 2018. The Framework was designed to support every type of academic career path at UCL to ensure that personal impact is measured consistently across UCL. 

The Academic Careers Framework was introduced to increase institution-wide consistency in assessing how academic staff meet the criteria for promotions. This addressed concerns that there was bias in the system in favour of research over teaching, and not valuing or recognising the contribution that citizenship has in academic and institutional life. Requiring that applicants for promotions demonstrate how they had contributed to research, teaching, external enterprise and engagement, and citizenship, resulted in a broader range of contributions being recognised. 

The Senior Academic Promotions process became embedded into staff appraisals (an annual requirement since 2017). Centralised co-ordination was also put in place to enable scrutiny and moderation of the process, providing feedback to individual faculties from the centre alongside local management of promotion applications.


The focus on addressing the gender imbalance at Grade 10 was based on the data held by the institution on its staff profile and the feedback received from staff through staff engagement surveys. These longitudinal data sets permitted broader analyses of the impacts of the work to support female career progression and identified barriers and issues. Staff feedback highlighted that promotions criteria did not consider the breadth of staff contributions, particularly citizenship.


  • There was an increase in the number of women being promoted to professor from 2017 (29F:56M), to 2018 (43F:85M) and 2019 (49F:69M). 
  • Average promotions success rates increased from 86.1%F:86.7%M in 2015 to 94.7%F:94.2%M in 2019. 
  • In turn, the proportion of women professors increased by 3.5%, from 27% in 2015 to 30.7% in 2019. 

Progress differs between STEMM and AHSSBL. 

In STEMM, the percentage of female Lecturers and Professors has increased to 41.3% and 28.3% respectively, equating to growth rates of 20% and 10%. This reflects sustained and well-established Athena Swan engagement. 

AHSSBL has a 10.7% loss of male Lecturers (41.3%→36.9%), Associate Professor level remains steady (and at parity), and there is a 14.5% growth for female Professors (33.9%→38.8%). This reflects the large size of IoE (first Athena Swan award 2019) and AHSSBL’s relatively recent Athena Swan engagement.

Key barriers and facilitators

The success of this initiative required a coordinated multipronged approach that brought together different stakeholders. The introduction of central co-ordination and oversight can often raise tensions regarding challenges to local autonomy and decision-making. However, these worries were either mitigated or eliminated by: - 

  • including deans and senior leaders from across the institution;
  • using the evidence base provided by Athena Swan self-assessment, such as longitudinal profile data and survey results, to demonstrate the underlying concerns that the proposed changes would redress. 

The introduction of some initiatives has not always been consistent, for example recorded annual appraisal rates vary across the institution due in part to non-completion but also issues related to poor record keeping and challenges of using online systems to complete the process. In relation to senior academic promotions, responding to the concerns expressed by staff, the institutional process allows for direct application by a staff member without the approval of the local head of department.

The future?

The initiative is now embedded alongside annual appraisals. Going forward, UCL is looking at under-representation in career progression and promotion for academic and professional service staff through the lens of other protected characteristics (e.g. race) and intersectionality (in the first instance gender and race) and considering what actions are needed to address these.

Advice for other members

Gather evidence. Consult widely. Be ambitious and be bold, in terms of addressing the challenge from all sides. Engage senior colleagues from across the institution. Be thorough.

Web Links: 

UCL’s Academic Career Framework and Promotions Processes
Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) Case study:
European University Association Reimagining Academic Career Assessment Case study


Advance HE shares a range of practice and approaches to charters awards. Case studies/example applications illustrate one approach to race/gender equality work but there are a variety of successful approaches and we recommend charter members consider their local evidence-base and context when deciding how to advance equality in their setting.