Senior technicians at UK universities overwhelmingly male

Figures show that even disciplines with a high share of female technical staff have few women at the top

November 14, 2019
A lab technician
Source: iStock

Just 11 per cent of physics and engineering technicians working in UK higher education are women, according to a report that is the first to explore equality, diversity and inclusion challenges facing technical staff.

While other disciplines have a much higher share of female technical staff, the vast majority of technicians in managerial positions across the sciences are male, according to the study, which is based on data on 14,375 technician roles in UK universities in the 2017-18 academic year.

For example, 58 per cent of university technicians in medicine, dentistry and health and 74 per cent in agricultural, forestry and veterinary science are women, but they make up just 9 per cent and 5.6 per cent of senior staff in these subjects, respectively.

Overall, 41 per cent of technicians working in higher education are women.

The data also reveal that just 10 per cent of technical staff at universities are black, Asian or minority ethnic. When analysed by age group, the study found the same proportion of those under the age of 25 of BAME ethnicity, suggesting that there were limited or ineffective measures aimed at increasing diversity in recruitment.

In total, 30 per cent of all technicians are over 51 years of age, increasing to 45 per cent within physics and engineering.

The report, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI): A Technician Lens, which was launched at the Stemm-Change annual conference at the Royal Society of Chemistry, is based on analysis of data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency using occupational classification codes to identify technician roles. The Stemm-Change project, which is led by staff at the University of Nottingham, aims to change diversity culture and practices across science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.

The report also collected qualitative data from workshops involving more than 200 technicians. Female technical staff in engineering and physical sciences reported “a lack of practical considerations in traditionally male-dominated subject areas”, including protective equipment, clothing and footwear being unavailable in appropriate sizing.

Some technicians also cited inequity in working arrangements, such as flexible working, between academic and technical staff as a barrier to advancing EDI.

Meanwhile, many technical staff who were aware of institutional programmes to address equality and diversity reported a lack of inclusion of technical staff and, consequently, a lack of technical representation on EDI committees, according to the study.

The report recommends that university diversity initiatives be inclusive of technical roles, and advocates better support for female and ethnic minority technicians wanting to move into leadership and management roles. It also says universities should introduce better succession planning to avoid losing skills as technical staff move towards retirement.

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Reader's comments (1)

Having dealt with forelock tugging ex-armed services NCO's in STEM technical management this comes as no surprise, none would recruit women of child bearing age if they could avoid it, simply because they realised that in addition to the cost of mat leave during the run up to birth they would have to change the both the physical workload, and the potential exposure to chemicals. Once returned from mat leave mothers would not be able to commit to the workload previously expected. And to a degree they were right, now with pat leave at least some of those things have been addressed, though most men won't take the full allowance as 'MANagement' seeks to extract as much as possible and promotion prospects ARE biased against those who are perceived not to be putting in maximum effort, and unpaid overtime, all of the time. Women being more sensible don't want to become 'work to live' cogs in the academic sausage machine, that's without the pressures of being a carer, for children or parents, as many are. Those few women who do, and I know several, are much better managers than the ex-NCO's, and usually end up getting dumped on as a result, younger women see this and don't want it, though I'm told some apparently good women managers suffer from 'queen-bee syndrome' which actually disincentivises younger women from seeking promotion. As with most technical professions promotion is through retirement AKA 'dead mens shoes'. Which is sadly appropriate as over the last 40 years I've had more senior technical staff retire through ill health, both mental and physical, or died from heart attack or stroke, than retired simply due to old age, none were women...