Why women count in higher education

08 March 2022      Sophie Crouchman, Strategic Projects and Research Manager

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day 2022 is #BreaktheBias, writes Sophie Crouchman (UHR Strategic Projects and Research Manager). The campaign asks us to strive for a world free of gender bias, discrimination and stereotyping and work together to forge women’s equality. Higher education is not free of bias, it is not always a place where diversity, inclusion and equity are valued or where differences are celebrated. Unless we recognise that and collectively agree that there is work to be done – and we get on and do it – we risk not only holding women back but also actively discouraging women (and men) from considering studying or working at our institutions.  


As UHR members working in HEIs all over the UK, you will no doubt be aware of, or indeed part of, recognising IWD at your workplace. There is always a flurry of activity in the sector to promote and celebrate IWD – and rightly so. But what does higher education actually look like for women in 2022?  


The best source of data on who makes up the UK HE workforce is HESA, and I’ve written about the importance of this recently here and here. HESA data shows us that 55% of the entire HE workforce is female. The HESA data also lets us look at the types of roles women are employed in which gives us some interesting insights. Less than half (46%) of women in non-academic roles are employed in management or senior positions, professional occupations or associate professional/technical occupations, compared with 59% of men. Turning to the academic workforce, the dataset shows that it is 47% female, with only 29% of all professors in the UK being women. This figure has risen 3% in the last 5 years so at the current pace of change, the Professoriate in the UK won’t be equal in terms of gender until 2057. Looking at other protected characteristics, you would be hard pushed to find a statistic as stark as the number of black women who are professors in the UK – a total of 35. The Women’s Higher Education Network (WHEN) have recently launched an initiative to address this shocking number – their 100 Black Women Professors Now campaign which challenges the structures and systems that are barriers to the progression of black female academics.  


But how long exactly would it take to shift the representation of women in your workplace? HESA data can reveal what your workforce looks like now but although this might seem like a simple question, the answer is complex.  In many universities, women make up a smaller proportion of job applicants than men, are hired at lower rates, are less likely to be promoted and hold fewer leadership positions than men. They may also be more likely to leave.  As HR professionals, can you access the data which tells the story at your university? Is someone monitoring these statistics, and do you have an action plan to address any concerns that they raise? Tackling just one aspect of this pipeline will not solve the problem. So for example, hiring more female academic staff will, in theory, boost the early stages of your pipeline but if those women aren’t nurtured, supported, promoted or given opportunities to progress, they may decide to look for work elsewhere.  Increasingly, employees are seeking roles at organisations with which they share the same values. Sending a positive message about what is important to you as an organisation by ensuring you have inclusive recruitment, retention and promotion policies can give you an edge when it comes to attracting talent.  


The UK’s gender pay gap (GPG) stood at 15.4% (for all employees) for the latest reporting period of 2021 – a slight increase from 2020, though still on a downward trend since records began in 19971.  The most recent research by UCEA showed a gender pay gap of 15.5% in the HE sector in 2018/19 and UCEA have produced an excellent resource on this which unpicks some of the reasons behind this figure. You will likely be aware of the gender pay gap at your university and may be part of the team that calculates it or is taking steps to address it. But how many other staff are aware of your GPG, the reasons behind it and what action is being taken in response to the figures? And why is it important anyway? Well, research by the Equality & Human Rights Commission states: 


Our recent survey of employees working in firms that had published their gender pay gap data revealed that over 60% of women would be more likely to apply for a job with an employer with a lower pay gap. In addition, over half (56%) of women said that working at an organisation with a gender pay gap would reduce how motivated they felt in their role.2 


And it’s not just women. The Hays Salary & Recruiting Trends 2020 guide noted that the majority of employers who were aware of a gender pay gap at their organisation stated that it negatively affected both their ability to attract talent and to retain their staff. Of all employees surveyed, one in five were aware of a gender pay gap at their employer and a staggering 80% said it was a problem for them, with nearly 20% suggesting it was enough of a problem to make them want to leave. Universities aren’t alone with struggling to address their GPGs though some have tackled the problem more effectively than others. The University of Huddersfield is one such HEI and features as a case study in the EHRC’s toolkit for employers on closing the gender pay gap. And whilst I’m here… don’t forget that the GPG reporting deadline is 30 March so if you haven’t already submitted your data then get your skates on! 


Whilst there is a lot to celebrate in terms of women’s contributions to higher education, I wonder what the sector will look like for today’s girls and young women, and whether at the current rate of progress, it will be their own children or even grandchildren who experience true equality within our universities.  So - what action is your HEI taking, and how urgent is it? I would love to know, please get in touch with UHR if you’d be willing to share your successes, frustrations or use our message boards to start a discussion. Drop me a line via email or Teams using 


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