Women in Higher Education Conference 2020 round up by Dr Karen Jones


Dr Karen Jones, Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Management, Institute of Education, University of Reading recently attended the Advance Higher Education (HE):  Women in HE Conference 2020 Conditions for change –how can we accelerate change that tackles the treatment and inclusion of women?

Held in London on 23 January 2020, it marked the first Women in Higher Education Conference held by Advance HE.  The conference brought together academics from a wide range of disciplines and professional roles, who share an interest in addressing the deficit of women in senior leadership, both within the academy and beyond. In this blog post Dr Karen Jones tells us about the key messages from the event.


The conference began with statistical reminder of disparities in the gender composition of UK university students and the professorial staff who teach them. Data from 2017-18 (Advance HE, 2019) shows the student population comprised of 43% males and 57% females, while the gender breakdown of postgraduate research students was 51.4% males and 48.6% females (Advance HE, 2019). Clearly this illustrates a healthy proportion of female students are participating in UK higher education. By comparison, in the same year, 74.5% of professors were male and only 25.5% female. Intersectional analysis of UK professors by gender and BAME/white identity reveals just 6.7% of professors were BAME males and 2.1 BAME females.


Of course, the picture is not all doom and gloom. As Alison Johns, CEO Advance HE, pointed out – we must celebrate the achievements of women like Baroness Valerie Amos, the first Black female Vice Chancellor in the UK and Professor Dame Janet Beer, the first female president of Universities UK, and Professor Louise Richardson, the first female Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford. Still, while many women are making it to the top echelons of leadership in higher education and many other sectors, Advance HE estimates that at the current rate it will be 170 years before parity for women is achieved across the world. This set the scene for some lively debates in the sessions that followed.


One topic of debate was the gender pay gap and occupational segregation. Although the gender pay gap has narrowed across the sector, figures for 2017-18 for all university staff show the mean pay of men was £43,348 compared to just £36,128 for women. This equates to a 16.7% mean gender pay gap. Occupational segregation is a key explanatory factor for this pay gap, because a higher proportion of female staff in higher education occupy lower paid roles such as administrative occupations (80%), cleaning and catering (60%), and a higher proportion of males occupy better paid roles. For instance, males are 74% professors, 67% academic heads, 69% heads of school/faculty and 64% vice chancellors.


Other critical issues debated by delegates at the conference include the poor value given to women’s work, unconscious bias, discrimination and sexual harassment.


Key messages from the conference, supported by research and statistics from Advance HE (2019), act as a call for action in the sector:


  1. There is evidence that women do have an appetite for leadership. Indeed, 86% of women take on roles in higher education that require them to have influence over others, but at the same time no authority. In consequence, women who go beyond the requirements of the role risk losing recognition.


  1. Many women are confident that they possess the relevant leadership skills, but greater support needs be provided to help women implement their skills in a political workplace.


  1. Too often promotion and development opportunities are opaque and poorly run. More needs to be done to create transparent and fair processes for career advancement.


In the meantime, real and perceived barriers persist for women seeking advancement in UK higher education.

Read more about these key messages from the conference here:

Equality in HE statistical report 2019: www.advance-he.ac.uk/knowledge-hub/equality-higher-education-statistical-report-2019

Statistics on pay equality in HE and links to former ECU resources: www.advance-he.ac.uk/guidance/equality-diversity-and-inclusion/employment-and-careers/equal-pay

UCEA and new JNCHES resources on the gender pay gap and pay equality in HE: www.ucea.ac.uk/library/publications/Taking-action-Tackling-the-gender-pay-gap-in-higher-education-institutions/ 

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