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International Women’s Day: Tales of Success or Survival?

  • 8 March 2017
  • By Diana Beech

Today, on International Women’s Day, it is only right that we celebrate the successes of women in higher education. After all, we live in a world where the majority of students at our universities are women. This is quite a change from the last century: the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, for example, did not formally award degrees to women until 1920 and 1947 respectively.

But the higher education sector still has much work to do before it can claim true equality of the sexes: 45 per cent of academic staff are women, but women make up only 35 per cent of those on senior academic contracts and just 24 per cent are professors. When it comes to Vice Chancellors, women make up only one-fifth of the total.

To make matters worse, UK pay data analysis by the Times Higher Education suggests female academics are paid 11 per cent less than men on average. Although this gap decreases the further up the academic ladder you go – with female professors paid 5.8 per cent less on average than men – the figures show our higher education sector still has many important areas to address if women are ever to achieve parity with their male counterparts.

While it is right to showcase female success stories in academia on International Women’s Day, universities and policy makers would do well to ask what it is they can do to make these stories even better in the future.

As any successful academic will tell you, irrespective of gender, making it in academia is no mean feat – whether it be securing the necessary funding for your next project, juggling the demands of teaching and research, or hopping from one precarious, short-term contract to another in the hope of obtaining tenure somewhere, someday. For female academics in particular, additional pressures of university life may include overcoming gender bias and sexual harassment, justifying career breaks while sacrificing an impeccable publication record and balancing an already packed workload with the demands of family life. For some, the growing tendency to prioritise international mobility and casual employment contracts may imply a sharp choice between an academic career and motherhood, with some women leaving it too late for the latter or simply choosing to forgo it.

In this context, the profiles of our leading female academics can sometimes seem less like tales of success and more like tales of survival. International Women’s Day should ultimately serve as a reminder to the sector that we should not only be acknowledging the work of our great female academics today, but also that we are committed to nurturing more of them for generations to come.

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