Gender data reinforces need for research culture changes

Research and academic staff culture needs to be radically improved around the world if women are to reach anywhere near equality with their male colleagues, particularly when it comes to top jobs in research-intensive and technical universities, according to an analysis of over 1,000 higher education institutions from more than 80 countries.

The study into gender disparities in higher education is the second produced by U-Multirank, which offers an alternative way to measure higher education performance to traditional university league tables.

Its Gender Monitor 2022 report highlights the continuing gender imbalance in academic careers the higher up the ladder staff climb, and says that while 47% of PhD students are female and women make up 44% of academic staff, just 29% become professors.

As for the top job, only 20% of all institutions had a female rector or vice-president in 2021-22, according to U-Multirank data.

No surprise

The results come as no surprise to those, like Dr Karen Stroobants, who are trying to change academic research culture.

Stroobants combines her role as a policy adviser on research landscape and economy for the Royal Society of Chemistry in the United Kingdom with acting as an independent consultant on research policy and strategy.

Most recently, Stroobants contributed to drafting the European agreement on research assessment reform with the European Commission, Science Europe and the European University Association, about which University World News reported last week.

Stroobants, a champion of greater gender balance in academia and board member of the grassroots EuroScience organisation, told University World News she is regularly approached “by PhDs and post-docs” about moving away from academia – by men as well as women – who blame the negative research environment.

“What is notable from these conversations, especially when speaking with women, is the frustration expressed around the passion for the research in combination with the disappointment towards the environment [in which] they find themselves, [which] they describe as egocentric, unsupportive, sometimes toxic.

“Very often, the latter is the deciding factor in the decision to leave. Many feel that to succeed they need to adapt to a culture that goes against their values, as success is defined around the individual rather than the collective endeavour.

“This also results in little flexibility to share the load in academic careers, to allow people to balance work with life. Part-time working and job-sharing are much less common than in other sectors,” she told University World News.

However, despite the odds, some women do make it to the top in higher education.

Among them is Professor Julie Mennell, vice-chancellor of the University of Cumbria in the UK, who rose to the top after a number of senior roles in the perceived man’s world of applied science in several universities in the north of England.

“As I reflect on my 30-year career to date, three things really strike me,” she told University World News.

“Firstly, talent needs to be recognised, enabled and embraced, wherever and whoever it is by leaders and my journey is testimony to this.

“Secondly, we have made progress and so many of the local, regional and national employers, sectors and organisations I interact with reflect this, especially here in Cumbria where we have not only a female vice-chancellor but a woman as chief [police] constable and a new female chief executive of a regional council.

“Thirdly, as a leader and a role model, it is incumbent on me to seek and nurture potential and talent, in all aspects of my role and interactions.”

Social and systemic barriers

Another woman who has scaled the heights of academia is Professor Kerstin Mey, president of the University of Limerick in Ireland, who said that despite female students making up over half of undergraduate enrolments globally, the number of women in leadership positions does not yet reflect their growing participation rate in higher education.

“Societal and systemic barriers to women rising to the top remain in place, and are even increasing in some parts of the world,” she wrote in a recent blog for the European University Association.

“The lack of a critical mass of female leaders in higher education institutions impacts opportunities to develop institutional and sectoral networks of support and the sharing of experiences and best practice for current and emerging women in senior roles.”

But academia is starting to change, with a growing number of institutions adopting the Athena Swan Charter, which offers a framework to support and transform gender equality across organisations through gap analysis, action plans and aligned policy and practice developments.

“Leading from the top and by example as a female university president, building a diverse and committed senior team, an empowering institutional ethos and a welcoming and inclusive working environment are as important as shaping powerful sectoral alliances and advocacy initiatives – nationally and internationally – to advance gender equality and help build a fair and resilient society,” argued Mey.

Professor Frank Ziegele, one of the founders of U-Multirank, told University World News the new study into gender disparities shows “the higher the position in the higher education system, the wider becomes the gender gap” and that women are more under-represented at research and technical universities around the world.

Hilligje van’t Land, secretary general of the International Association of Universities, which represents more than 600 higher education institutions and organisations in over 130 countries, welcomed the second U-Multirank Gender Monitor and told University World News she recommends it “as a way to assess the current state of play and to inform future decision-making to address the existing issues”.

“U-Multirank’s analysis shows how women and men are generally distributed at universities, and whether the well-known ‘male and female subjects’ still exist at higher education institutions,” she said.

Gender bias across subjects

The Gender Monitor 2022 analysis includes more than 1,000 institutions from more than 80 countries which provided comprehensive data on gender to U-Multirank.

It compares gender bias across 25 subjects among both students and academic staff and finds the most prominent gender imbalances among engineering subjects as well as in computer science and physics, which are male-dominated, and in programmes such as nursing, education and social work, which are female dominated.

The largest gender gaps are found in research-intensive universities, according to the report, where, despite having an equal share of women in the student body, they have 9% fewer women among academic staff and 12% fewer female professors.

The study also shows that even in institutions focusing on health and humanities subjects, which have a large majority of female students, “women continue to be under-represented among academic staff and professors in all subjects”.

As for students, the U-Multirank report illustrates the continued existence of gender roles and stereotypes, with over 80% of nursing, education and social work students being female across the world while less than 20% of female students are studying mechanical engineering and electrical engineering.

Computer science stands out as one subject where female academic staff outnumber female students in many departments, but even here “the proportion of women does not reach 30% at any level on the computer science career ladder”. However, it seems to be one subject “where women – once they have entered the field – have a better chance to advance”, says the report.

Biology and chemistry are the two science areas which attract the largest percentage of female undergraduate students and although the proportion of women within chemistry departments has advanced since 2019, it is only in biology where female academic staff (51%) outnumber male staff among the natural sciences.

Broader discrimination

Lidia Borrell-Damián, secretary general of Science Europe, which represents major European public organisations funding ground-breaking research, told University World News that gender inequality, as evidenced by the U-Multirank study, remains a major issue in research and innovation.

“Women still face bias and discrimination in the whole science ecosystem. However, bias and discrimination are not only targeted at women but also concern people of colour, LGBTI people and people with disabilities.

“At Science Europe, we are working to address these issues, especially focusing on monitoring and collecting data, making research assessment fairer and combatting harassment in academia. We are also glad to see that equality, diversity and inclusion remain priorities for research policy-makers in the European Union,” she said.

Gero Federkeil, managing director of U-Multirank, acknowledged that the latest study only gives insights on balance between males and females in higher education and that “a modern notion of gender requires more than a binary classification of female and male”.

While current data available for such an analysis was “limited”, he said he hoped future reports would include the category “non-binary/diverse” in student surveys and said: “U-Multirank will continue to extend its definition of gender in ongoing and upcoming data collections, including surveys at the institutional and department levels, which are the basis for the U-Multirank gender monitor.”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at