Skip to main content

Women in HE – accelerating change to tackle treatment and inclusion of women

17 Oct 2019 | Alison Johns Alison Johns, Advance HE CEO, highlights some of the stark statistics about women’s representation in higher education ahead of our Women in HE Conference: Conditions for Change - how can we accelerate change that tackles the treatment and inclusion of women?

In the commercial sector, the imbalance in gender representation has been dubbed ‘the Dave dilemma’: there are more FTSE CEOs called Dave than there are women in the role. In fact, you can add Steve, Andrew and Peter to the list. As I write, there are just five women who lead FTSE 100 companies.

The picture is a mixed one for higher education (HE). Progress has been made - in 2008 only 18 Vice-Chancellors were women, by last year, the figure was 50. Although this is not good enough in the sense of parity, it is progress which has been made and which demonstrates clearly that change can happen. 

However, simply saying we have made progress is not enough and I thought I would ‘storyboard” the situation in the UK, using just some of the data from our recently published Advance HE Staff statistical report 2019.

If we look at the pipeline below, a clear picture emerges of the 'points of pain' for the progression of women and it starts early after graduation with a very dramatic gap in promotion to professorial roles. 

Student staff pipeline
UK Professors by Gender

Clearly, the current system contains a mixture of barriers, obstacles and challenges which make it harder for female colleagues to progress. We have a system which seems to increasingly fail to utilise the diversity and talent of its staff as they progress through their careers. 

The consequence is a smaller talent pool, lacking the variety of experience and insight which can lead and support change at a time when different voices are perhaps more necessary than ever before. 

Not only is this not fair, it simply doesn’t make sense on any level.

Earned over 50000

The picture is even more bleak when looked at from a BAME perspective. We can see that opportunities for black and ethic minorities are fewer from the outset and reduced even more markedly, particularly for women. 

UK Professors by gender and BAME/white identity
Student staff pipeline by white male/bame female

Although there has been an increase in the proportion of female professors, rising from 24.6% in 2016/17 to 25.5% in 2017/18, progress is slow and the ongoing imbalance all too clear. The challenge is what to do to accelerate change. 

I am very proud that we have been encouraging and empowering women to embark on their leadership journey through our Aurora programme and other leadership opportunities. This needs to continue. Nearly 6,000 women from more than 175 institutions have attended Aurora. We know that Aurorans are twice as likely to be promoted than those who have not participated in the programme. This is great news. It’s clear evidence that affirmative action works.

However, the reality is that there are more structural and cultural hurdles to overcome in women’s progression and representation in the sector. From employment contracts, the impact of part-time working on careers, and even the (lack of) presence of women on Boards. These are things that need to be addressed and present a test of leadership for the sector.

We want to support the sector in accelerating its response to these challenges, by providing a forum and the impetus to corral ideas and action which will lead to change. Ultimately, we all want be able to look back and see inequality – in whatever guise - as something of the past.

I very much hope you’ll join me at our Women in HE Conference: Conditions for Change - how can we accelerate change that tackles the treatment and inclusion of women?

Women in HE took place on 23 January 2020 in London. Find out more.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

Keep up to date - Sign up to Advance HE communications

Our monthly newsletter contains the latest news from Advance HE, updates from around the sector, links to articles sharing knowledge and best practice and information on our services and upcoming events. Don't miss out, sign up to our newsletter now.

Sign up to our enewsletter