The sorry state of ‘equality’ in UK universities

Kate Williams looks at the latest figures and concludes that much more needs to be done

December 11, 2016
Goldfish staring at black fish in bowl (racism)
Source: iStock

While the proportions of female, black and ethnic minority, and disabled academics have been rising steadily over the past decade, the numbers from these groups who are reaching senior manager or professorial levels remain stubbornly low. 

Nearly 70 per cent of professors are white men, while just under 22 per cent are white women. Some 7.3 per cent of professors are BME men, and just 1.9 per cent are BME women. Among university senior managers, 67.5 per cent are white male, 28.3 per cent white female, 3.3 per cent are BME male and only 0.9 per cent BME female.

These are the headline findings from the Equality Challenge Unit’s Equality in Higher Education Staff Statistical Report 2016 and, on the face of it, they are not very encouraging. 

Needless to say, at the very top, white males continue to dominate, with women holding just over a fifth of vice-chancellor and principal posts. 

It’s not all bad news. The report shows that the ethnic background of staff working in universities has increasingly become more diverse, disability disclosure rates have grown, and the proportion of academic staff who are women has risen to 45 per cent. 

But there is clearly still a great deal of ground to make up before higher education can truly describe itself as a sector that has embraced equality. 

So what is holding back improvement in this important area? Most universities are signed up to national initiatives such as the Athena SWAN Charter, set up as long ago as 2005 to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine, and now expanded to also include arts, humanities, social sciences, business and law and professional and support roles.

Such schemes are evidently making a difference, but it seems that this alone is not enough. 

There needs to be a commitment to take action to address the equality agenda from the top tier of management (largely dominated by white males) down through the hierarchy of an institution. At Leicester, for example, we have taken a leading role in the United Nations Women HeForShe campaign, which aims to encourage men to actively support gender equality. The same principles should be applied to supporting BME, LGBT and disabled staff and students.

Universities should also turn more of their research efforts to discovering what is hampering progress and what can be done to overcome obstacles.

A team of researchers at my institution, including me and our vice-chancellor, Paul Boyle, conducted a study to investigate one of the key drivers of academic inequality: competitive grant funding. We found that while women are at least as likely as men to be successful in grant applications, they are still constrained in their ability to secure funding by the relative lack of women in professorial positions. This situation will improve only if structural changes are implemented within universities and funding agencies.

Finally, universities should work more collaboratively to share best practice and learn from each other about the most effective strategies for tackling equality issues. In an increasingly competitive world, it may be tempting to regard any progress on this front as a potential “unique selling point”. While competition can be healthy, institutions probably have more to gain from working together on areas such as equality, where there is a sector-wide need for faster progress, and anything that can help achieve that will benefit all of us.

Kate Williams is deputy pro vice-chancellor for equality and diversity at the University of Leicester.

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Reader's comments (1)

I have been on and equality & diversity committee for an Australian university trying to get Athena-Swan accreditation. We were recently successful in getting an exemption to the gender discrimination legislation, to hire three women-only lectures in maths. There had been no women staff for a while - now it is at 30%. We are unusual in that the Dean and several Heads of Departments are women of science. We even break the national trend by having several Aboriginal lecturers, and the national ARC (research council) has a special scheme for Indigenous researchers only. I am about to join a UK university that has at least received Athena-Swan accreditation, and has 30% women promoted in the last round, but I note the population of the town is 4.4% minorities and the university has been unable to recruit minority staff, as the VC admitted - about 30% here so I am not looking forward to the change.


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