Academic alert: Higher education’s gender gap

Illustration: Gabrielle Wolf
Illustration: Gabrielle Wolf
Illustration: Gabrielle Wolf


According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 80 per cent of professors at UK universities are men. This is despite the facts that the majority of university students are women and that women make up 45 per cent of the UK academic workforce. Where are all the women in academia?

Fair Representation

As it turns out, women tend to be selected for academic jobs (as well as for grants and fellowships) proportionally to the rate at which they apply to them. But, they do not apply at rates equal to their male peers. Furthermore, when it comes to achieving gender balance at the highest ranks of higher education – where the imbalance is most acute – it is not always possible to enforce gender equality. For example, the St Andrews student body elects the rector. “If the students are voting for their rector, you can’t say, ‘Oh, it’s got to be a woman because the balance is out,’” Professor Andrews says.

This is not to say that the problem cannot be addressed. It can. And it should be. “57 per cent of students at the University are women, and that is not reflected in the faculty,” says Charlotte Potter, a fourth-year student who organized last week’s panel discussion, Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling: A conversation with women in academia. Professor Andrews, who participated on the panel, is currently the only woman who has ever been a professor in the School of History. (A second female professor will join the department this September.)

Rector Catherine Stihler also participated on the panel. Rector’s assessor Annie Newman says: “Catherine is a feminist. I’m a feminist. Most people are feminists whether they know it or not, and I think it’s equally important to Catherine as it [was] for every other woman on that panel for women to be equally represented.”

While St Andrews is not perfectly balanced in terms of gender, it is doing some things well. “We’re very lucky in that, at the highest level of the University, women are, I think, the majority [e.g. the principal, the proctor, and the rector],” says Annie. “We’re particularly lucky that we have that example to look to.”

The University is also making strides at the departmental level. St Andrews has been recognized by the Athena SWAN Charter, which awards universities that have committed to combating the under-representation and advancement of women in STEM fields, which have traditionally been dominated by men. The University has received an institutional award of bronze, while the Schools of Chemistry, Mathematics and Statistics and Psychology and Neuroscience have been recognized individually.

Off Balance

However, gender imbalance is still a problem here and everywhere. Part of the problem is unconscious bias. In the late 1990s, the National Union of Students (NUS) campaigned for anonymous marking at UK universities. The then education officer, Richard Darlington, told the Times Higher Education: “We would like all marking to be anonymous… This is not saying that academics are racist or sexist. It is simply acknowledging that subconscious bias is an inevitability unless safeguards are put in place.” After anonymous marking was implemented, the NUS reported that most demographic disparities disappeared in student assessment.

Other insidious cultural issues besides unconscious bias contribute to academia’s gender imbalance. Professor Andrews says: “I like to think that progress could have been faster in my career in terms of just having the sense that, across the board, men and women would be treated in the same way.” But they often are not. “I’ve been told that I shouldn’t speak so much at meetings,” she says. And while she admits that she is a naturally talkative person, research shows that women actually speak less when they are in a mostly-male environment even when they are perceived to speak too much.

The Gender Gap

While gender bias can manifest in subtle, intangible ways, the pay gap is not one of them. Unequal pay is not a problem specific to higher education, but it is certainly an important consideration. On average, women on full-time academic contracts in the UK are paid 11.3 per cent less than men, according to an article from the Times Higher Education published earlier this month. The same article also notes that this gap tends to widen at older universities.

The pay gap is not only an issue of a man being paid more than a woman in the same position, but is also one of distribution. According to the University’s 2013 Gender Pay Gap Information Report (the most recent study that is publicly available), 80 per cent of staff at the lowest pay grade were women. 81 per cent of staff at the highest pay grade were men. Additionally, among academics at the highest pay grade, there was a gendered pay gap of nearly 6 per cent.

Reaching High

Without equal representation or equal pay, women in academia are at a significant disadvantage. However, last week’s Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling event focused on how women are still able to succeed – and even thrive – despite these challenges.

On the day, Charlotte explained her vision for the event: “I hope that it’s encouraging and aspirational. I hope people come away from it thinking, ‘Oh that’s something I can do,’ rather than [think], ‘Oh that’s going to be too hard’ or ‘I’ll never be able to do it.’”

Indeed, the speakers were nothing short of inspiring. They came from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. Many spoke about how they manage to balance a career with children. Each was very candid.

Professor Ottoline Leyser, a visiting speaker from the University of Cambridge where she directs the Sainsbury Laboratory, spoke about all the rejections she suffered throughout her career – from postgraduate programs, fellowships, and academic journals. She was quick to note that these were not specific to her or her gender, but were instead a reality of academia and something to expect – and even embrace.

Finding Your Place

Many of the speakers mentioned self-doubt, which does affect men and women differently. According to a 2011 survey of British managers conducted by the Institute of Leadership and Management, half of female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers. Less than a third of men did. In the same way that society socializes women to be less vocal, it also tampers with their self-confidence.

Professor Andrews says: “You have to learn to live with your self-doubt, not to listen to it all the time, because I have a huge amount of self-doubt all the time. It kind of churns me up. Keep going.”

Like many professionals, female academics often find support in the form of a mentor. Charlotte says: “A lot of women need a lot more encouragement. And that doesn’t need to be from another woman.” Professor Andrews has mentored younger colleagues of both genders. “I’ve found that just as useful [as being mentored]. Because in talking to other people about their career and their work, it makes you think about your own. So it’s beneficial to both parties,” she says.

A Glimpse Inside

One thing noticeably missing from the event was a male audience. While there were a handful of men in attendance (including Association president Pat Matthewson and Director of Representation Ondrej Hajda), the room was almost all women. However, the issue of women in academia affects us all. Charlotte says: “It’s their issue as well, and they need to work hard at it too.”

While women tend to be acutely aware of gender bias and imbalance, men may not be. “It’s hard in a way when you don’t experience it because your eyes are automatically shut to the issue, so they need to be opened,” Charlotte says. Last week’s event was certainly an eye-opening experience.

In addition to addressing the topic of women in academia, the panel discussion also covered academia as a career option. “As someone who has always known that I want to go into academia, I’ve also been a bit frustrated that all of the career events focus on specifically non-academic careers,” Charlotte says. She may not be the only student who feels this way.

The student response to the event was fast and furious, with the first round of online tickets selling out the same day they were released. This popularity was unanticipated, but encouraging. Professor Andrews says: “We’re taking students seriously and saying, ‘You could be like us. There’s no need to see yourselves as somehow different to your teachers. This is just a particular kind of career and, in fact, a really attractive one. And students know it. They’ve seen it. They’ve spent a few years in it. They’ve watched it from the outside, and I think it would be interesting for them to see it from the inside.”

Both Charlotte and Professor Andrews hope that last week’s discussion is only the first of many. When it comes to the issues facing women in academia – and the progress being made – there is a lot more to be said.


  1. While it’s hard to argue that there is no gender bias in hiring practices at higher education institutions (I, in fact, believe there is), this article fails to take into consideration the fact that many university staff have held their respective position for a very long time— often decades. Because women are relatively new to workforce in academia, there will still of course be a disproportionate amount of men in the field: after all, you can’t expect schools to terminate members of staff solely to meet gender quotas. A better way to approach the issue is to examine how many woman of equal qualification are currently bein hired in proportion to men.


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