Are We Nearly There Yet?

The Equality Challenge Unit has recently published its annual survey of statistical information about staff and students in UK universities (this year there are two reports covering separately all grades of staff and students) . There is a wealth of data to drill down into there, and the previous 3 years’ of data are also available at the ECU website. Hence the question I pose in my title: how far have we got regarding gender equality and, if we’re not ‘there’ yet, are we getting close? The answer can only be a qualified ‘maybe’. The trends are definitely in the right direction, but whether progress is fast enough is debatable, because we certainly haven’t achieved anything like parity in SET subjects. The reports cover not only gender but other equality aspects (ethnicity, age and disability), but I will concentrate on the gender side of things.

The article on this report  in the THE this week, headlined the fact that overall 76% of professors are white and male. Such a lack of diversity cannot be healthy. The numbers of BME (black and minority ethnic) staff across the board, male or female, is truly dismal. A mere 5.3% of academic staff are non-white UK nationals and there are a further 6.6% of non-UK BME staff members.  The cover of the ECU report itself focusses on pay disparities, noting that there is a 16.3% median gender pay gap (and a 20.3% mean gender pay gap). I think such comparisons are not helpful, however, because, as long as there is grade segregation – and there undoubtedly is in academia, with a heavy preponderance of women in the relatively lowly paid grades of catering or cleaning for instance – such a significant pay disparity is inevitable. What matters is whether there is a gender pay gap within equivalent grades and there isn’t enough detail to make this out. It is the gender breakdown in the academic grades that I want to concentrate on here, trying to tease out what I can about trends.

There is very little historical data in the report, but one figure that is highlighted is an overall increase in the proportion of women, rising from 40% in 2003 to 44% in 2010.  A 10% increase in 7 years sounds pretty positive. Interestingly, or possibly worryingly, of the women in the 2010 workforce, 43% are working part-time (compared with only 28% of the men). These part-timers no doubt comprise a mixture of those who are temporarily and probably enthusiastically working part-time due to caring responsibilities, with those who are on part-time contracts because that’s all the work that is available; the statistics don’t distinguish, so it is impossible to tell if the larger number of women who aren’t in full time positions are doing this voluntarily because this is what works for them at a particular stage in life, or whether they are being disadvantaged by being shifted into part-time and possibly insecure positions which offer little hope of progression. If that is the reason for the overall increase in the percentage of women, we should be feeling less complacent. That’s the trouble with data like this, there are always more questions one wants to know the answer to than one can get at from what is provided.

However, let’s assume that the 10% increase is entirely a good thing, and that the significantly larger proportion of women in part-time jobs is not a source of concern. Let’s look at the trends in the professoriat, building on the headline figure that the THE set out.  The professoriat is interesting, particularly the comparisons between what is termed SET and non-SET populations, but again I faced problems when trying to work out what was going on by way of a comparison with earlier data (in this case the 2008 report, covering the year 2006/7, which is the earliest I can currently find on the web). It’s hard to make the comparisons I want, because what ECU deem as ‘SET’ (Science, Engineering and Technology) in 2008 has broadened by this latest report to include medicine and subjects allied to medicine, such as nursing and dentistry, the subjects covered by the ECU’s Athena Swan Charter. So, whereas the total number of all professors has increased from 16430 to 17375 during these 3 years, the apparent number in SET subjects has increased to a much greater extent. Furthermore, the subjects now included also include those specifically where one might expect to see more women, based on their representation in undergraduate classes, so an apparent increase in the percentage of female professors in SET subjects from a mere 7.9% in 2008 to nearly double that at 15.1% has to be regarded with some suspicion. Things aren’t as rosy as all that. Doubtless there has been an increase, but if one could do a like for like comparison I am sure it would be much less marked (overall the increase in female representation in the professoriat, across all subjects, is from 17.5% to 19/1% over this time period).  So, it seems impossible to tell quantitatively how well things are moving forward for women in SET subjects at the highest levels.

There’s one final point I’d like to make, before leaving interested readers to dig down into the report themselves to find out the answers to the things that personally intrigue them. That concerns the student population.  This year’s report highlights the gender gap here, which is the reverse of just about everywhere else in these reports. More girls than boys go to university, although this gap is slowly decreasing (from 14.6 to 13.2% over the period from 2003/4). In some subjects the disparity is huge:  80.6% are girls in subjects allied to medicine, 76.6% in veterinary sciences, and even in biological sciences the percentage is 62.9%. Is this a cause for concern? Should we be looking at doing more to facilitate boy’s progression into these subjects at university?  This is the side of the coin that doesn’t often get looked at, but I can’t help feeling this disparity is just as ‘wrong’ as the tiny numbers of girls embarking on engineering or computing degrees. The difference in the case of males, is that these low numbers at undergraduate level do not propagate into the higher tiers of academia. In Veterinary Sciences there is an almost exact 50:50 split amongst all academic staff according to the report. In fact, in my own university we don’t have a single female professor in the Vet School and I suspect that may not be atypical, though the statistics in the ECU report don’t provide that information.  In Biosciences, the proportion of males:females is approximately reversed between undergraduate (37.1: 62.9%)and staff (57.6:42.4%) levels.

So, we should be asking ourselves, not only ‘are we nearly there?’, but where is the ‘there’ we are trying to reach. Is the ideal a 50:50 split between the genders at all levels and for all subjects, or do we believe that this is a) impossible or b) undesirable – or even c) irrelevant as a metric. I’ll be interested to read your comments.

 

 

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13 Responses to Are We Nearly There Yet?

  1. Hej
    Great comment, read it with great interest. I forwarded it to our WINGS group at Lund Uni. Looking forward to new blogposts. Merry Xmas, Helena

  2. Paul says:

    Athene, I saw your plea for comments on twitter…

    What I often see as lacking in the gender equality debate is a comparison of the proportion of minority academics compared to the proportion of that minority in their own undergraduate cohort many years ago. True equality would be a maintenance of those ratios from an undergrad cohort through to professorships for a given generation. For example, is the 76% white male professors representative of an undergrad intake 25-30 years ago when the average professor was a fresh faced student?

    Off-setting that argument would be the need for role models for current students. Is the fact that 24% of professors are now from a perceived minority (and, I would guess, a larger proportion of more junior academics) a sign that the need for role models is now being significantly addressed?

    It would seem that significant efforts are being made to address gender equality and these figures might hint at evolutionary change in the right direction. I’d be interested to hear your further thoughts.

    • The comparison Paul suggests would be interesting, but the expectation of direct comparability is debatable as I would guess a significant fraction of the UK academic (as in ‘tenure track faculty’) cohort were not undergraduate (or even postgraduate) students in the UK.

    • Lesly says:

      Athene, I saw your plea for comments on ttitwer What I often see as lacking in the gender equality debate is a comparison of the proportion of minority academics compared to the proportion of that minority in their own undergraduate cohort many years ago. True equality would be a maintenance of those ratios from an undergrad cohort through to professorships for a given generation. For example, is the 76% white male professors representative of an undergrad intake 25-30 years ago when the average professor was a fresh faced student?Off-setting that argument would be the need for role models for current students. Is the fact that 24% of professors are now from a perceived minority (and, I would guess, a larger proportion of more junior academics) a sign that the need for role models is now being significantly addressed?It would seem that significant efforts are being made to address gender equality and these figures might hint at evolutionary change in the right direction. I’d be interested to hear your further thoughts.

  3. Chris says:

    Some interesting analysis there, and I agree that there is plenty to think about. But I think that one of your points is slightly misleading:

    “The numbers of BME (black and minority ethnic) staff across the board, male or female, is truly dismal. A mere 5.3% of academic staff are non-white UK nationals and there are a further 6.6% of non-UK BME staff members.”

    According to the 2001 census, the “non-white” population of the UK accounts for 8.3% of the total population. Since the census includes all residents of the UK, whether UK nationals or not, it seems reasonable to compare this to the total number of “BME” academic staff – 11.9%. So maybe the numbers of BME staff are not so dismal after all?

    I don’t mean to suggest that the issues of ethnic diversity or discrimination have been resolved, but that we may have to be more realistic with our “targets”.

  4. Paul
    All the evidence suggests we still have a ‘leaky pipeline’ for women at each stage, particularly it seems at the step to first independent researcher. So, although it is obviously true that the cohort of professors today will not have stemmed from the same % of women as in the undergraduate population of today, I think it is manifest that women drop out in larger numbers than men. But your remarks beg the question of are the %’s in the undergraduate population ‘right’. In physics, or engineering it is the women who seem to be put off before ever starting; in veterinary science or biosciences it is the men who don’t start along the track. Should we worry about that as well?

    Chris
    I did think about the point you make, but it is difficult to know what the right benchmark figure is, particularly when it comes to the inclusion of non-UK nationals. It is clear that the UK undergraduate population, as well as the professoriat, is much more highly populated by some ethnic groups (be they of UK origin or not) than others. So by lumping all the BME groups together we are losing sight of part of the problem.
    Furthermore, I think within the 8.3% you quote a relatively small proportion are likely to be non-white non-UK nationals, since EU nationals will be a large proportion of the non-UK nationals, and they are more likely to be white than not. So I would suggest the comparison of 5.5 versus 8.3% is approximately the one we should look at. Thus I certainly don’t feel we are in a very good place on this front, but perhaps it is less awful than ‘dismal’!

    • Paul says:

      Athene,
      Interesting thoughts. I guess my point was that to make the most convincing argument of a “leaky pipeline” the correct comparisons need to be made. However there are a lot of socialogical arguments around career choices and progression between genders that make it difficult to be as precise and scientific in the analysis as we’d like as physical scientists. I think degree choices is perhaps a separate issue to career progression but also something that should be looked at carefully. As an undergraduate in physics at Edinburgh there were no female academics in the school, so things have certainly progressed since then. Hopefully things can continue to move in the right direction but I don’t think it’s possible to have a revolutionary shift in gender or ethnicity ratios overnight without being overly discriminative to the career development of talented people who come to be perceived to be of the wrong gender and race (i.e. the majority group for a particular discipline).

  5. Claire Warwick says:

    Your point about subjects where women are in a minority as UGs but not as academics or professors holds in my area as well. Numbers of students taking our MAs in Library and Information Studies, Archives and records management and Publishing are overwhelmingly female. Yet there are plenty of male academics and until this year all 3 professors in my dept were male. The same is true in the professions- most of the chief librarians, archivists and senior publishers are male for whatever reason. In my faculty as a whole (Arts and Humanities) once again the majority of UGs are female, yet only a third of the professoriate is female and this is of course a very good ratio in comparison to the sciences. We are at least the only faculty with more female HoDs than male, 4-3: engineering has none at all. Overall not a very happy state of affairs and I worry that it’s hard for female UGs to imagine themselves as an academic, let alone a professor, as a result. It’s as if we are saying that however many women study, men teach- reinforcing an unfortunate stereotype of male dominance yet again.

  6. Claire Warwick says:

    Meant majority in the first sentence above of course…

    • Danny says:

      Your point about subjects where women are in a mitoriny as UGs but not as academics or professors holds in my area as well. Numbers of students taking our MAs in Library and Information Studies, Archives and records management and Publishing are overwhelmingly female. Yet there are plenty of male academics and until this year all 3 professors in my dept were male. The same is true in the professions- most of the chief librarians, archivists and senior publishers are male for whatever reason. In my faculty as a whole (Arts and Humanities) once again the majority of UGs are female, yet only a third of the professoriate is female and this is of course a very good ratio in comparison to the sciences. We are at least the only faculty with more female HoDs than male, 4-3: engineering has none at all. Overall not a very happy state of affairs and I worry that it’s hard for female UGs to imagine themselves as an academic, let alone a professor, as a result. It’s as if we are saying that however many women study, men teach- reinforcing an unfortunate stereotype of male dominance yet again.

  7. One way of comparing career progression is to look at the proportion of women by grade and age cohort.

    An argument for how fast the proportion of women among academics can change is as follows.
    The length of a career as a permanent academic is around thirty years. Consequently about 3% of academics retire each year. If no women retire and the replacement appointments are 50% women then the proportion of women will rise by 1.5 percentage points per year. So unless the total number of academics is rising the best we can hope for is an increase of around 1.5 percentage points per year.

    • Maria says:

      Athene,Interesting thoughts. I guess my point was that to make the most coinivcnng argument of a leaky pipeline the correct comparisons need to be made. However there are a lot of socialogical arguments around career choices and progression between genders that make it difficult to be as precise and scientific in the analysis as we’d like as physical scientists. I think degree choices is perhaps a separate issue to career progression but also something that should be looked at carefully. As an undergraduate in physics at Edinburgh there were no female academics in the school, so things have certainly progressed since then. Hopefully things can continue to move in the right direction but I don’t think it’s possible to have a revolutionary shift in gender or ethnicity ratios overnight without being overly discriminative to the career development of talented people who come to be perceived to be of the wrong gender and race (i.e. the majority group for a particular discipline).

  8. Divine says:

    PaulAll the evidence susggets we still have a leaky pipeline’ for women at each stage, particularly it seems at the step to first independent researcher. So, although it is obviously true that the cohort of professors today will not have stemmed from the same % of women as in the undergraduate population of today, I think it is manifest that women drop out in larger numbers than men. But your remarks beg the question of are the %’s in the undergraduate population right’. In physics, or engineering it is the women who seem to be put off before ever starting; in veterinary science or biosciences it is the men who don’t start along the track. Should we worry about that as well?ChrisI did think about the point you make, but it is difficult to know what the right benchmark figure is, particularly when it comes to the inclusion of non-UK nationals. It is clear that the UK undergraduate population, as well as the professoriat, is much more highly populated by some ethnic groups (be they of UK origin or not) than others. So by lumping all the BME groups together we are losing sight of part of the problem.Furthermore, I think within the 8.3% you quote a relatively small proportion are likely to be non-white non-UK nationals, since EU nationals will be a large proportion of the non-UK nationals, and they are more likely to be white than not. So I would suggest the comparison of 5.5 versus 8.3% is approximately the one we should look at. Thus I certainly don’t feel we are in a very good place on this front, but perhaps it is less awful than dismal’!