Women make up 56.4% of the undergraduate population, 53.8% of the sector workforce and occupy 45% of academic jobs. Yet women’s representation declines dramatically as you move up the levels of seniority, particularly for those in academic roles.
Across the sector only 27.5% of academic managers and 20.5% of professors are women. In vice-chancellor and principal roles, this is even lower with only 17% of women holding the top job. In 2013/14 29 of 166 institutions are led by women.
Removing barriers can ensure women’s careers are able to advance in the same way as men’s.
The Equality Act goes some way to enabling employers to address this imbalance through positive action in recruitment, selection and promotion.
Positive action enables institutions to encourage people from groups with different needs, with a past track record of disadvantage or low participation to take up training, development, promotion or transfer opportunities. For example, it allows women to be appointed over men in tie-break situations where there is an underrepresentation of women at that level and at interview nothing distinguishes a male and female candidate.
Equality law says that an employer has to go through a number of tests to show that positive action is needed. See the following guidance for further information:
- Chapter 12 of the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Employment Statutory Code of Practice
- The Government and Equalities Office Employers: step-by-step guide to positive action in recruitment and promotion
As part of a range of equality initiatives that shape institutional strategy, mentoring can help to address the gender imbalances that exist within the higher education sector.
However, there is significant evidence that women, especially minority ethnic women, experience greater difficulty in finding a suitable mentoring partnership. To address this imbalance, higher education institutions are developing formal mentoring programmes.
Gender and leadership
In 2013 ECU collaborated with the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (LFHE) to research the career progression of women in HE leadership.
The research surveyed women in senior roles in the sector, identified through their completion of LFHE’s Top Management Programme (TMP). Over 50 of the current UK vice-chancellors/principals are TMP alumni.
The research explored alumni’s experiences of how their gender, ethnicity and disability may have influenced their career paths. It also highlights factors that may have facilitated or hindered their career progression.
The research found that women were less likely than men to be successful in applying for more senior roles. Recommendations for the sector include:
- Training for members of governing bodies and other key staff involved in making senior appointments
- The development of a code of practice for executive search firms working in higher education
- The use of positive action in recruitment and promotion
- The consideration of equality related circumstances in academic promotions