Universities must do more and work together to tackle inequality

Posted by ap507 at Dec 12, 2016 11:05 AM |
Dr Kate Williams discusses the latest report from the Equality Challenge Unit

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to ap507@le.ac.uk

The latest report from the Equality Challenge Unit presents the higher education sector with an update on its progress towards providing equal opportunities for its staff.

The headline findings from the Equality Challenge Unit’s Equality in Higher Education Staff Statistical Report 2016 are, on the face of it, not very encouraging.

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. 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 identifies 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 for 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 this alone is not enough.

Like most universities, my own institution has been taking a close look at what more it can do to identify and tackle equality issues and transform our culture. We believe there are a number of avenues worth exploring at an institutional level, which taken together could result in some significant advances.

Firstly, 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. This is why, for example, the University of Leicester has opted to take a leading role in the United Nations Women HeForShe campaign, which aims to encourage men to actively support gender equality. Such engagement will help to bring about the culture change that we are seeking. The same principles should be applied to supporting BAME, LGBT, disabled staff, and students. To bring about a culture change, institutions must also make efforts to provide and promote more role models of staff from under-represented groups in senior leadership positions, offering mentoring and shadowing.

Secondly, having committed to action we need to take it forward on the basis of better knowledge. Universities should turn more of their research efforts to discovering what is hampering progress and what can be done to overcome obstacles. At Leicester, for example, a team of researchers including myself and our Vice-Chancellor Professor 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. Tackling this issue will benefit institutions as well as their female academics. That is why Leicester is in the process of revising our academic career structure and promotions. We aim to meet challenges raised by staff and to highlight contributions and achievements in areas such as leadership and citizenship that we have identified as particularly important for women.

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 USP. While competition can be healthy, institutions probably have more to gain from working together on areas like equality where there is a sector-wide need for faster progress and anything that can help achieve that will benefit all of us. For this reason, Leicester has joined with local universities to form a group to pool experiences on equality. We hope others will join us so we can collectively work towards delivering some more encouraging results.

Dr Kate Williams is Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor for Equality and Diversity at the University of Leicester

Share this page: