Research-intensive universities have a gender problem

Female enrolment in higher education globally has grown tremendously in recent decades. However, the latest gender analysis by U-Multirank confirms that more work still needs to be done to close the gender gap in academic careers.

While on a global scale, women today count for slightly more than half of all bachelor degree and masters students, their share is still significantly lower among academic staff and professors.

In addition, this first analysis, published earlier this month, shows that there are still the stereotypical subjects which are dominated by one particular gender.

On the one hand, there are the engineering courses as well as computer science and physics, which still are heavily male-dominated, and on the other hand, there are the ‘female-driven’ subjects such as nursing, education, psychology and social work.

Between these two extremes, there are, however, subjects which are developing in the direction of a more even gender balance.

Addressing gender imbalance in higher education

Gender is a major factor in inequality in higher education. In life, at school and, of course, in higher education, some people live according to or are bound by stereotypes: ‘women are more social’, ‘men are more technically adept’ – and the choice of higher education courses is often influenced by these social constructs of gender.

To assess the current state of play on gender in higher education, U-Multirank launched its first gender monitor to show how women and men are generally distributed at universities and whether the well-known ‘male and female subjects’ still exist at higher education institutions on a global scale.

In this first analysis, we not only look at the gender ratio among undergraduate students, but also at the PhD level and among staff and professors.

The underlying data are taken from the U-Multirank database and refer to the academic years 2018 or 2019. The analysis includes 900 institutions from more than 80 countries which provided comprehensive data on gender.

The data is assessed at both the institutional and subject levels and includes 25 subjects in total, based on data from more than 3,000 departments. This analysis is the first of a planned annual monitoring of gender in higher education.

Where are the women professors?

U-Multirank data confirm on a global scale that there is still a gender imbalance in academic careers. The data show that female representation is still lower than male representation across the academic career path, and that, while the share of female students among bachelor and masters degree students is slightly above 50%, it continuously decreases as academics climb higher up the career ladder.

At PhD level, 48% of students are female; 44% of academic staff are women, but just 28% are professors.

While patterns in the European Union do not differ substantially from the rest of the world, in some Eastern European countries, such as Russia and Ukraine, women have a higher representation among academic staff and professors.

However, the greatest underrepresentation of women among academic staff can be found at research-intensive institutions.

Across an individual’s academic career, the gender gap is wider at research-intensive universities (as measured by the percentage of universities’ expenditure spent on research), where the share of females among professors is only 23%, compared to 38% at institutions with low expenditure on research.

Furthermore, U-Multirank data show that in institutions with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects – measured as having more than 50% of their graduates in STEM – the gender gap is particularly large: only one fifth of professors are female.

Gender balance by subject

The total increase in women’s enrolment in higher education does not imply that what they choose to study has not remained highly gender based. Gender balance can be defined as having a minimum of 40% of ‘both’ sexes in a department or institution, according to the European Commission.

Based on the latest analysis by U-Multirank, the data taken from individual departments and faculties show that there are many subjects where gender balance is not (yet) achieved, both among students enrolled on the course and graduates, as well as among staff.

On the one hand, the most prominent gender imbalance can be found in engineering subjects as well as in computer science and physics, which are heavily male dominated. One exception is environmental engineering – here the combination of a technical programme with a relevant social field may be more attractive to female students.

On the other hand, there are heavily female-dominated programmes, such as nursing, education, psychology and social work.

Between these two extremes, there are subjects that do show a more even gender balance in terms of both students and staff. Business studies, economics, political science, agriculture and history, as well as chemistry (the only science subject) are more gender balanced. In these subjects there is a balance with at least 40% of students and professors being male and 40% being female.

Furthermore, the unique U-Multirank subject data suggest that gender ratios differ according to both department and the subjects taken within a department. There can be clear imbalances, but there are always some (and sometimes even more) departments that don’t fit the general pattern.

Need for expansion on gender reporting

Reporting on gender requires more than a binary classification of female and male. However, the current data available for such an analysis is limited. Two factors play a major role in the limitations of data: 1) many institutions do not yet collect gender data in a more inclusive way, and 2) current reported numbers are too small to allow for any disaggregation by additional variables.

Therefore, this first analysis only looks at gender in a binary system and will be improved upon in future years.

As a first step in 2020, U-Multirank introduced the category ‘non-binary/diverse’ into its student survey to let all students express their gender identity and be represented.

Additionally, U-Multirank will continue to extend its reporting on gender in ongoing and upcoming data collections, including surveys at the institutional and departmental levels, which are the basis for the U-Multirank gender monitor.

Gero Federkeil is head of international ranking at CHE Centre for Higher Education in Germany and managing director of U-Multirank.