Ahead of the launch of ECU’s 2017 higher education statistical reports later in the year and following a month of Pride events, Jess Moody (Senior Policy Adviser) and Dr Kevin Guyan (Researcher) sat down to discuss what we know and do not know in terms of data on sexual orientation of staff and students in UK higher education.
Jess: One of the most striking things about the national data on sexual orientation of staff and students in higher education is frankly how little of it there is. It seems inconceivable that the sector would be able to do ‘good’ equality work if the gender or ethnicity of 70% of staff were unknown. Why the ‘blanks’ in sexual orientation data?
Kevin: The ‘blanks’ cover two groups: firstly, those whose data was never collected. Some institutions do not choose to return any data on sexual orientation to HESA: while they could well be collecting the information locally but choosing not to return nationally, it’s quite possible that some staff and students simply do not have an opportunity to disclose their information. The other group of ‘blanks’ might be where the university is returning their ‘collection’, but some respondents were never asked about their sexual orientation or skipped the question when asked. ‘Blanks’ differ from those included under ‘Information refused’: these respondents explicitly made the decision not to share information on their sexual orientation.
The situation overall appears to be improving: a lot more institutions are reporting information on sexual orientation and, within institutions, more students and staff feel comfortable sharing this information. For example, in the 2012-13 academic year 75 out of 161 institutions reported student data on sexual orientation; by the 2014-15 academic year this figure has increased to 128 out of 163 institutions.
Jess: From the datasets available it also seems that even where universities are returning data they might not be doing so consistently (so, for example we know some are returning data for less than 10% percent of their student/staff population) – any ideas why this might be the case?
Kevin: Again, we need to think about how and when this information was captured. For example, if staff are only asked to disclose information at the start of their employment contract, this might predate sexual orientation becoming a protected characteristic and HESA’s decision to collect this information. It would be good for institutions to think about how often they provide opportunities for staff to update their data, but also how they’re going to discuss any ‘new’ characteristics in an open and transparent way with staff. In terms of students, it’s also worth thinking about inconsistencies in collection for those students who don’t enter via UCAS or a main cohort.
Jess: I often hear anecdotally that institutions don’t ask about sexual orientation because they assume a low response rate. Is that a fair assessment, or do we need to debunk some myths?
Kevin: This might be the case but how can we know if we don’t ask? Social attitudes to sexual orientation have changed drastically in the past decade, and we’d encourage our colleagues in the sector to challenge their own assumptions here – they might be surprised. Students and staff should have the opportunity to respond; if they do not wish to share this information they can always select an option of ‘Prefer not to say’. It might also be interesting to see if any institutions locally provide an additional drop-down or free-text option to collect reasons why someone doesn’t want to disclose: for example, statements like ‘I feel this is private information’, ‘I do not have confidence in how the institution will use the information’, or simply ‘I don’t fully understand the question’ describe very different behaviours!
Jess: Another reason I hear for low collection levels is that HEIs are afraid of offending and/or are not convinced that it’s their ‘business’. We have dealt with some of these concerns previously but do you think not asking is really a neutral position?
Kevin: No, the decision not to ask, for whatever reason, is not a neutral position. Although the collection of this data is not mandatory, institutions that do not return data are making a value judgement about data relating to sexual orientation. Also, as sexual orientation is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, guaranteeing that staff and students are not facing discrimination because of their sexual orientation very much is the ‘business’ of HEIs.
In the 2014-15 academic year, 119 of 164 UK institutions returned data on staff sexual orientation. This means that 45 institutions did not return any data. We need to think about this issue in two ways. Firstly, who is not asking and for what reasons? And secondly, who is not answering and for what reasons? Both dimensions bring with them specific challenges. For instance, an unwillingness among staff and students to answer these monitoring questions may relate to trust in monitoring systems, confidence that this data will not be used for any other purposes and lack of knowledge about the benefits of disclosing.
Jess: Let’s talk a bit more about responses. We currently have a fairly limited number of categories for orientation in the national datasets (some of which arguably carry inherent gender binary assumptions). Do you think response rates might be adversely affected by a narrow range of identities?
Kevin: It is interesting that in the 2014-15 academic year, among those who disclosed, 16,785 students and 655 staff described their sexual orientation as ‘other’. I believe we are missing something if we don’t drill-down into this data further to establish what is not currently captured by the existing categories. We also need to think about the fluidity of sexual orientations over time: just because a student or staff member self-identifies as one sexual orientation at the start of their studies/employment does not necessarily mean this identity will remain fixed in the following years. Fluidity can be an important element of a person’s identity, and – we suspect – there may be generational difference in approach here. We need to start thinking about how changing social understandings of sexual orientation can be fully understood through our data definitions – how can we future-proof this? Could or should we track changes in identity over time?
Jess: If we had as much data on sexual orientation as, for example, ethnicity, what could we learn about the representation and experiences of LGB+ staff?
Kevin: Great question! We know that in the 2014-15 academic year, there were 75 black UK professors (0.5% of all UK professors, number rounded to the nearest five). This data helps activists and organisations agitate to address this gap. Due to a lack of data, we currently do not know if LGB staff are proportionally represented at senior levels in UK higher education. Should a problem exist, the lack of data impedes our ability to take action. We face similar challenges when it comes to data on religion and belief (which will become compulsory for institutions to submit to HESA from the 2017/8 student return) and trans identity/history.
We also know from other research that LGB data can deepen our understanding of gender, ethnicity, disability, and age barriers (for example) in terms of intersectionality. As highlighted in ECU’s recent ASSET report, sexual orientation can have a huge impact in understanding the intersectional experiences of some staff.
To coincide with this conversation, ECU have launched new infographics on staff and student LGB data from the 2014-15 academic year. We encourage you to download the infographics and use them in your institutions.