One in three UK universities going backwards on female professorships

New data show proportion of professors who are women has declined at some institutions

May 25, 2017
Female professor
Source: Getty

The proportion of professorships held by women has declined at significant numbers of UK universities in recent years, despite huge efforts to improve gender equality among senior academic staff, Times Higher Education can reveal.

The largest drop in the proportion of female professors since 2012-13, of six percentage points, occurred at Loughborough University, according to new Higher Education Statistics Agency figures obtained by THEOther institutions, including the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London, have seen their performance improve only marginally in the three years up to 2015-16.

The data show that, while the total number of women in the UK professoriate grew by almost a quarter to 4,775 between 2012-13 and 2015-16, more than a third (37 per cent) of institutions with statistically significant numbers of professors saw the proportion who are women reduce.

That came despite increased take up of the Equality Challenge Unit’s Athena SWAN charter scheme to encourage gender diversity in higher education, which now has 143 members compared with just 61 members in 2011.

At the London School of Economics and Political Science, the proportion of female professors declined by 2.6 percentage points over three years, while Queen Mary University of London reported a 1.1 percentage point fall.

Largest falls in the proportion of female professors




Percentage point difference

Loughborough University




London School of Economics and
Political Science




Queen Mary University of London




University of Durham




University of York




Notes: Proportion of female professors 2012-13 versus 2015-16. Universities with more than 150 professors. Source: Hesa

Many institutions did manage to increase their proportion of female professors: some 27.4 per cent of professors at the University of Liverpool were women in 2015-16 compared with 16.5 per cent in 2012-13. At the University of Leeds, the proportion rose by a quarter to 23.4 per cent, while the University of Oxford increased its rate by a fifth to 24.2 per cent over the same period.

The national average now stands at 24 per cent.

Louise Morley, director of the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research at the University of Sussex, said it was, however, “shocking to see that some universities are increasing their already very high percentages of male professors”.

Professor Morley said that it was important for staff to “know the story behind the statistics, such as the data on recruitment and promotions, including whether women are applying for chairs and [whether are they] being rejected” – with such information publicly available at many US universities.

Largest improvements in the proportion of female professors




Percentage point difference

University of Liverpool




University of Kent




Swansea University




University of Leeds




University of Sussex




Notes: Proportion of female professors 2012-13 versus 2015-16. Universities with more than 150 professors. Source: Hesa

The new figures raise questions about the UK’s progress compared with universities in the US and the European Union, where some states, such as the Netherlands, are considering quotas to ensure more equal representation. Data compiled by the EU for its She Figures 2015 report show women held 17.5 per cent of “grade A positions” (roughly equivalent to professor) in the UK in 2013 compared with an EU average of 20.9 per cent, whereas in the Republic of Ireland the proportion was 28.2 per cent, in Sweden it was 23.8 per cent, and in France it was 19.3 per cent.

In the US, some 30.6 per cent of full professors are women, according to a 2016 report commissioned jointly by the American Council for Education and the Center for Policy Research and Strategy, which drew on 2014 US government statistics.

At some UK institutions, mainly those with a high number of science and engineering courses, only about one in seven professors were female in 2015-16, latest figures show. These include the University of Bath (13 per cent), Imperial (13.8 per cent) and Loughborough (14.2 per cent).

However, Hesa’s figures failed to include female professors with management responsibility, said Steve Rothberg, pro vice-chancellor for research at Loughborough. Overall, the institution’s proportion of female professors had remained static at about 18 per cent, with an action plan in place to increase this, he claimed. Its percentage of female readers has grown from 24 per cent to 39 per cent which, he expected, would “start to shift the percentage of female professors soon”, Professor Rothberg added.

At the University of Cambridge, 16.9 per cent of professors were women in 2015-16, just 1.3 percentage points higher than in 2012-13.

Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at Cambridge and its gender equality champion, said that the university is “far from unaware or unconcerned about the problems”, but its high numbers of professors in science and engineering meant that “progression is likely to be slower than anyone would like”.

“Since the numbers of women starting degrees in these subjects are in themselves so low, one cannot expect high numbers of professors in them, significantly contributing to the disappointing total percentage of women professors overall,” said Professor Donald.

Ruth Gilligan, Athena SWAN manager at the ECU, said that the UK “sector as a whole is making steady progress on gender equality”, although “progress will never be uniform”.

However, Ingrid Molema, president of the Dutch Network of Women Professors, said that the UK’s progress  – improving by about one percentage point a year nationally, similar to the Netherlands – would mean gender parity would not be achieved until 2054.

“This is very slow considering that women have made up 50 per cent of students since the early 1990s,” said Professor Molema, professor of life sciences at the University of Groningen.


Print headline: ‘Snail-like’ progress on professorial gender gap

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Reader's comments (4)

Sadly what is the incentive, especially when some institutions don't award the role with a salary increase.
This is an unsatisfactory situation, and we all need support in addressing this situation. The stats speak for themselves given that 50:50 is the ideal ratio. The way forward here is to embed Athena Swan into the REF, and the TEF. Then, to actively write that 50:50 is a basic assumption in our reporting, and the figure is nuanced to reflect local reality, including +50% female staff.
As an addendum to my own comment, I agree with Professor Steve Rothberg, contradicting myself! The stats might not speak simply to our local situation, which is very supportive of equality and fairness. This is a sector issue, not a 'name and shame' situation
It looks like you are advocating discrimination against people with superior ability on the grounds that they are the wrong gender. An Australian friend put it bluntly, "It's what's between their ears that should matter, not what's between their legs."