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White men still dominate in UK academic science

Birds on a wire and one all alone on yellow background

Credit: Adapted from Getty

Male academic scientists outnumber their female counterparts by two to one in biology, mathematics and physical sciences in the United Kingdom, and by more than four to one in engineering and technology, according to an official report collated for the government and released last month. More than three-quarters of academic staff are white, the report also finds.

Who works in HE?’, compiled and published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) in Cheltenham, UK, points to significant, ongoing disparities in employment at universities. The report includes details on 217,065 academic employees — including 143,510 full-time workers — during the 2018–19 academic year.

The gender gap has narrowed only minimally in recent years. For example, women made up 18% of academic staff in engineering and technology in the 2014–15 academic year, compared with 19% in 2018–19.

Money matters

Women in academic positions also tend to earn less than do their male counterparts. Just over half of all men in biology, maths and physical sciences reported earning more than about £45,900 (US$59,000) per year, but only 37% of women reached that pay level. At the other end of the scale, 17% of women but just 11% of men reported earning less than about £34,200 annually. In engineering and technology, 51% of men and 44% of women earned more than about £45,900 per year. In both sections, 10 people reported their gender as ‘other’, and 50% of those had salaries of more than £45,900.

“Gender parity in pay and seniority in higher education in the UK has such a long way to go. This is particularly true in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects,” says Ivana Vasic, head of research at the Women’s Higher Education Network, an advocacy group based in London. She notes that, according to the HESA report, the number of women in the highest annual-income bracket (more than about £62,000) in academic posts in biology, maths, physical sciences, engineering and technology has risen by about 25% since 2014–15, whereas the number of men in that bracket has stayed roughly the same. “That’s progress, yes, but it’s painfully slow,” she says.

Ethnicity breakdown

Ethnic disparities in UK academic employment have remained stark. Some 76% of academic faculty and staff members identified as white, 9% as Asian and 2% as black. Ten per cent described their ethnicity as ‘other’ or gave no information.

Around 55% of white respondents in engineering and technology reported earning more than about £45,900, but only 29% of black respondents fell into that bracket.

Gender and ethnic inequities in UK academia have been an issue for a long time, say researchers in the field. “These figures don’t tell us anything new,” says Kalwant Bhopal, director of the Centre for Research in Race and Education at the University of Birmingham, UK. In a 2019 paper, Bhopal used interviews to explore the role of gender and ethnicity in career progression and retention in higher education (K. Bhopal Res. Pap. Educ.; 2019). “Higher education continues to be a white space in which black and minority-ethnic groups are paid much less than their white colleagues,” she says.

Bhopal wants all UK higher-education institutions to be required to participate in the Race Equality Charter, an initiative of Advance HE, a non-profit higher-education support organization based in York, UK, which also runs the Athena SWAN Charter for gender equality. Institutions that sign up to both charters commit to promoting equality among academic staff and in the student body.

Nature 579, 622 (2020)



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