New research points to persisting gender inequalities in UK academia

Female staff members of universities remain vastly underrepresented in top academic roles, command fewer permanent contracts than their male counterparts, and face an enduring pay gap, according to a report by the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU), a charity devoted to equality and diversity in higher education.

The findings denote a broader trend of female academics struggling to break into the higher echelons of their universities.

While representation has improved each year, the gains are minimal, and job security for women remains an issue. The disparities were starkest at the most prestigious levels. Using official university data from 2012-13, the research found that 78 per cent of UK professors were men and 80 per cent of university heads were also men.

Three times as many males held senior contract levels than females did. The main areas where women did have majorities were part-time academic, assistant and administrative roles. “For all other contract levels, men were in the majority,” the report noted.

Tenure was also unequal. Male academic staff were 5.3 per cent more likely to be awarded permanent contacts over fixed-term contracts. However, women had a similar edge over fixed term contracts in part time roles.

In general, women were far more likely to hold part time support staff roles, holding 79 per cent of those positions. The report highlighted differences within specific subject areas. Physics and engineering subjects continued to be male domains, with male staff holding around 80 per cent of positions in these subjects.

Women dominated just four of the 23 subjects surveyed: nursing, psychology, veterinary science and clinical medicine. Gaps in wages and career mobility persisted.

For those earning less than £50,000 annually, the gender divide was relatively equal. But women were generally unable to progress further: only 31 per cent managed to earn more than £50,000.

The report estimated the mean pay gap between women and men to be 19 per cent for the last academic year. David Ruebain, chief executive of ECU, urged greater attention: “Universities need to be focusing on specific areas to take action if we are going to transform the culture of HE [higher education] into one that is fair, inclusive, and offers the same chances to everyone.”

The universities are, in theory, in agreement. 114 universities have signed on to the ECU’s Athena SWAN charter, including the University of Edinburgh. The scheme holds institutions to certain equality standards and grants awards based on progress.

A survey by The Student revealed that the University of Edinburgh is one of only four such universities to have earned a gold award for diversity, for the School of Chemistry.

The university has also earned three silver awards for the School of Informatics, the School of Biological Sciences and the School Biomedical Sciences. But the achievement is a rare one. Many universities settle for bronze awards and many more fail to receive awards at all. And beyond awards, the trends continue.

In its own inequality report this year, the University of Edinburgh’s Equality Diversity Monitoring and Research Committee (EDMARC) showed that equality remains elusive.

Mirroring the national trends, less than 20 per cent of Edinburgh professors are female.

Male academic staff were six per cent more likely to earn fixed-term contracts than females were and the percentage of women in the top income bracket (£60,000 and above) dropped from 36 per cent to 24 per cent in 2012-13.

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