Women outnumber men on UK PhDs for first time

Data hint at progress in ‘improving the pipeline’ of female researchers

November 17, 2022
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Women make up the majority of UK postgraduate research students for the first time, a new report reveals.

Advance HE said the figures hint at good progress in “improving the pipeline” of female researchers, and will hopefully lead to better representation among professors.

The organisation’s annual statistical reports highlight opportunities and challenges in the promotion of equality, diversity and inclusion in UK higher education staff and students.

Its analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency data shows that the majority of UK students at every degree level were female in the 2020-21 academic year.

Rates were highest for undergraduates for whom it was not their first degree (63.8 per cent), and lowest for research postgraduates (50.3 per cent).

However, this was up from 49.5 per cent in 2019-20 and marks the first time since reporting began in 2008 that women have outnumbered men among postgraduate researchers.

“This statistic is important as, traditionally, postgraduate research has been the only degree level in which female students did not make up the majority,” Amanda Aldercotte, head of knowledge and research at Advance HE, told Times Higher Education.

“In theory, what this hints at is a step in the right direction in improving the pipeline of female researchers into academic roles and, eventually, better representation amongst professors.”

Female postgraduates comprised the majority of students in all non-STEM subjects, apart from business and management studies, and in historical, philosophical and religious studies.

“However, in practice, there are a number of other factors involved in making the transition from research postgraduate student to academic researcher, and then to professor, that may mean this incremental improvement does not get directly translated into improved representation of female staff in the academy,” added Ms Aldercotte.

The figures confirm that this milestone is not yet reflected in the progression to academic posts and professorships.

The proportion of academic staff who are female rose slightly to 47 per cent year-on-year, while just 28.5 per cent of professors are women.

Overall, 57.2 per cent of all UK students were female in 2020-21 – a proportion that is largely unchanged in almost two decades.

However, this varied slightly across the home nations – from 56.8 per cent in Wales to 59.3 per cent in Scotland.

The report also revealed that 6 per cent of UK higher education staff disclosed a disability in 2020-21 – almost double the proportion a decade previously.

But the figures showed just 0.7 per cent of professors were black – only a slight improvement from the year before.

“While it’s very encouraging to see the sector’s efforts are starting to make an impact, we all acknowledge that there is still a way to go – particularly for progression and degree outcomes for black staff and students respectively,” added Ms Aldercotte.

patrick.jack@timeshighereducation.com

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