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.