Exploring Gender Imbalance in Academic Progression

11 September 2017      Sophie Harris, Deputy Director of Human Resources

Sophie Harris, Deputy Director of HR at SOAS University of London, was the winner of the UHR-CUPA bursary earlier this year, receiving a delegate place at the CUPA-HR conference in San Diego from 16-18th of September, as well as a study visit in the US. Here she talks about the focus of her study visit, and the areas of HR she will be exploring on the trip.

In anticipation of my fast-approaching UHR study visit to the USA in September, I have been considering why we are still seeing a marked gender difference in academic career progression.

In most American universities, academics are expected to achieve tenure at the Associate Professor level within a seven-year period. Newly hired professors (generally at the Assistant Professor level) must impress their department with their accomplishments to be awarded tenure, usually but not always combined with promotion to Associate Professor. Those not awarded tenure within a fixed time may be expected to leave the institution.

There is no such common system of deadline-driven promotion in the UK, albeit that staff would be expected to perform their role competently in order to pass probation. 

During my study visit, I’m interested to learn more about how these differences in approach impact on female progression. I will be specifically exploring:

  • how institutions in the US help enable women in particular to overcome barriers to achieve tenure and then full professor status;
  • similarities and differences in female progression compared to the UK;
  • what we can learn from approaches taken in the US to tackle gender disparities. 

My experience of higher education is that the primary cause of the gender pay gap isn’t the underpayment of women for like work, but the relative scarcity of women in the most senior roles within the workforce. This is particularly prevalent in academia where research shows that female academics are less likely to be promoted than their male counterparts and promotion takes longer.

I'm interested in why we are still seeing these substantial differences in the career progression of women and whether we are continuing to perpetuate these differences through an increasingly individualistic society and deeply ingrained cultural schemas; factors that effectively remove or diminish the impact of individual choice.

There are three heavily entangled areas that I believe are having an impact on progression and it is these areas that I will be focusing on during my trip:

1.     Division of labour in the workplace 

Research shows us that in academia, women tend to take more responsibility for administrative and support activities, including pastoral care and peer support; activities which are given limited weight when determining eligibility for promotion or pay rises and may even hinder progression. 

2.     Gender stereotypes

Not only are female staff less likely to dedicate all their time to the areas that will gain them a promotion, but they are also less likely to ask for one when the opportunity arises. 

3.     Balancing career and family

Economic and social policy means that the majority of adults cannot avoid paid work. Female staff commonly retain the childcare role, constraining the amount of time and energy that can be dedicated to working life.

Caught up as we are in this web of social, economic and political constraints and cultural stereotypes, it is tempting to wonder what the point is of trying to put in place any interventions. How much difference can we really make?

I’m not approaching this research trip thinking that the US has found a magic bullet. I know that isn’t the case. But my trip will involve meeting with academics who have conducted research into female progression and I’m hoping that their experiences and findings will provide some different approaches or spark some new ideas. 

I will be publishing more on each of these topics in the coming weeks.

A short YouTube video covering the various CPD opportunities offered by UHR, including the CUPA bursary is available to watch

For more details about CUPA-HR and its conference, visit

Author: Sophie Harris, SOAS, University of London

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