Learning the lessons of gender equality in higher education
Support The numbers of women studying and teaching STEMM subjects vary from discipline to discipline — yet diverse educational environments are important for the innovation of all students.
Women aren't only under-represented in STEMM sectors such as engineering and technology. They can also be under-represented in STEMM educational environments, both from a student and a teaching perspective.
Equality Change Unit (ECU) is an organisation that works within the UK's higher education sector to promote equality and diversity for staff and students. Its Athena SWAN charter is a scheme which was established to recognise excellence in the promotion of gender equality for women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, maths and medicine) and which has recently expanded to cover all academic disciplines
“Women are better represented in some STEMM disciplines than others,” says Dr Ruth Gilligan, Athena SWAN manager. “Overall, 50.4% of students studying STEMM subjects are women; but this is skewed by subjects such as veterinary science where they number 76.1%. However, in engineering and technology only 16.1% are women — or computer science where the figure is 17.1%.”
Yet attracting women into STEMM subjects — and creating a diverse educational environment — is important for the innovation and creativity of the whole student cohort. “Studies show that research groups, and groups of people tackling problems, are often more effective and have higher morale when they are diverse,” says Gilligan.
Addressing gender inequality in STEMM subjects has an economic benefit, too. Gilligan points to a report from the Royal Society of Edinburgh — called Tapping All Our Talents: Women in STEM, a strategy for Scotland — which notes: “It is estimated that a doubling of women’s high-level skill contribution to the economy would be worth as much as £170 million per annum to Scotland’s national income.”
It is, therefore, vital to equip the next generation with STEMM skillsets. “One of the key challenges is making sure that men and women enter undergraduate programmes across STEMM disciplines,” says Gilligan. “Which is why outreach and widening participation programmes are important to encourage female students into STEMM; and that those students get the support they need when they become undergraduates.”
Athena SWAN also ensures a framework that introduces cultural changes, creating a better working environment for both men and women – so there are benefits for all employees and students.
There is another big gender-related issue: in higher education, women are still under-represented at senior levels. For example, in chemistry, the undergraduate cohort is approximately 40-50% female; yet only 8.8% of professors are women.
“Higher education institutions have to ensure their progression policies are equal and fair for everyone,” says Gilligan. “They have to consider how they support career development, and where there may be pinch points in career pipelines. They also have to consider their staff recruitment and induction policies and, in terms of staff progression, their appraisal and promotion policies.” For example, ECU Athena SWAN higher education applicants are asked to consider the kind of support are they offering to staff taking career breaks — such as maternity, paternity or adoption leave — and how they are supported when they return to academia or to research.
“Unfortunately there is no 'magic bullet' to solving this problem,” says Gilligan. “But if the situation is to improve, higher education institutions must very carefully assess all of their policies, processes and data, identify where their issues lie, and commit to change.”