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Higher Education

The higher education sector is of particular importance in the issue of gender equality within science, engineering and technology. Universities both teach and employ women scientists, engineers and technologists and can therefore have a positive impact on women’s representation in the science, engineering and technology workforce at various levels.

Like any other employer, universities need to attract and retain the best staff to ensure they can continue to compete within their sector. Recruitment policy and practice, opportunities for flexible working, a culture that is positive and encourages women’s contribution and progression will all help to ensure a good gender balance within science, engineering and maths departments. A good gender balance makes good business sense for universities as well as being in line with their commitment to fairness and equality.

Women remain in the minority in most science, engineering and ICT subjects at undergraduate level, but the attrition rate in universities is marked. In one subject where they are in the majority at undergraduate level – 63% in biosciences – women are still just 12% of professors in the field. It’s clear that universities still have some work to do to ensure equality in career progression within science, engineering and technology. See more figures on gender equality within higher education in our statistics section.

Universities are also competing to attract and retain students – both undergraduate and postgraduate – and some subjects such as physics or engineering have seen worrying drops in undergraduate applications in recent years, leading to closures of some departments.

Women are a key market for such courses as the potential for growth in women students in these traditionally male-dominated areas is huge. Employment practice can also have an impact here, as having visible women lecturers and professors in a department can help to encourage women to apply.

Women’s experience as students will also affect their ongoing enthusiasm for their chosen subject and will influence the career choices they make as a result. Why think of research or postgraduate study in an area where all your lecturers were male or where your minority status was constantly remarked upon and made a joke of? At present, over two thirds of women qualitied in science, engineering and technology aren’t working in these sectors – at a time when the UK is suffering a skills shortage. Universities have a responsibility to look at the teaching practices and culture of departments which are traditionally male-dominated to ensure that they are truly accessible and supportive to their women students and encourage them to remain within the sector.

The UKRC’s work with the higher education sector is mainly through the Athena SWAN Charter, an accreditation scheme for universities in their role as employers within science, engineering and technology.

The UKRC has also piloted a number of support schemes for female science, engineering and technology students in universities in England – the SET for Work scheme – and a further pilot for women engineering students is due to be launched in Scotland.

Also related to the higher education sector is the UKRC’s work with the research councils around research funding policy. You may also want to see the research commissioned and funded by the UKRC on gender equality within science, engineering and technology.