The sorry state of ‘equality’ in UK universities

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While the proportions of female, black and ethnic minority, and disabled academics has been rising steadily over the past decade, the numbers from these groups who are reaching senior manager or professorial levels remains 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 only improve 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.

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

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