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Helping secure gender equality in higher education and research is part of Advance HE’s global mission #InternationalWomensDay

08 Mar 2023 | Alison Johns Advance HE’s mission is to help higher education and research across the world to be the best it can be – and, says Chief Executive, Alison Johns, that means giving institutions the tools they need to address gender inequality.

Countries around the world are prioritising the need for gender equality in their higher education and research sectors.

Whether it’s nations in the Global South or those in the more affluent North, their aim is to give women a fairer deal and enable them to enter and progress within the sector on equal terms to men; that is because wherever you are in the world, women in higher education are likely to earn less, advance less and to be employed on less favourable terms than their male counterparts.

Our latest data show that in UK higher education, for example, half as many women are employed at senior contract levels, compared to men – and that’s despite women making up the majority of higher education staff.

This means institutions are accessing a more limited talent pool when appointing to senior posts and a far narrower range of perspectives when making corporate decisions.

The sector is working to address this and the table below shows there is still more to do for the progression of women in UK HE:

According to HESA's data, comparing the 2005/06 with 2020/21 academic year shows the following changes:

  • the percentage of female staff has risen from 53.6 per cent to 55.1 per cent of the total employees in UK HE
  • the percentage of female academic staff has risen from 42.1 per cent to 48.3 per cent of the total academic staff population in UK HE
  • The percentage of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic female staff has risen from 5 per cent to 8 per cent of the total employees in UK HE
  • The percentage of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic female academic staff has doubled (from 4 per cent to 8 per cent of the total academic staff population in UK HE)
  • the percentage of female senior managers has risen from 30.4 per cent to 41.9 per cent of the total senior managerial staff in UK HE.

the percentage of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic female senior managers has risen from 0 per cent to 3.3 per cent of the total senior managerial staff in UK HE.

Through its work in this field, Advance HE is committed to making a difference.

Evidence shows that our two key initiatives – the Athena Swan Charter (which we run on behalf of the sector) and the Aurora leadership development programme for women –together with our other work aimed at encouraging diversity, are delivering tangible results across the sector.


Athena Swan

An independent longitudinal report exploring the impact of Athena Swan in the UK reveals:

  • 93 per cent of Champions believe that the Charter has had a positive impact on gender issues in their university, department or research institute
  • 78 per cent believed the Charter had a positive impact on equality and diversity issues
  • 78 per cent believed the Charter had a positive impact on the career progression of women. Departments with Athena Swan awards have 7 per cent more female staff than those without;

And that:

  • There is a trend towards more gender balanced senior level promotions amongst Athena Swan applicants
  • There is an increasing percentage of women on job shortlists and more appointments to women amongst Athena Swan departments. 

“[The Charter] unlocks open communication, honest discussion, real scrutiny of practices and commitment to a common purpose.”

The Athena Swan Charter began in 2005 and in 2015 expanded from science and technology to advance the cause of gender equality across all subject areas and among all staff groups.

Under Athena Swan, institutions can achieve Bronze, Silver or Gold awards and need to commit to advancing the representation, progression and success of women at every level.

The Athena Swan approach is gaining influence across the globe:

  • In the UK, some 143 institutions take part with more than 1,000 award holders in universities, departments and research institutes
  • In Australia, Athena Swan is managed by Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) and has 43 institutions taking part with 39 Bronze award holders
  • In Brazil, Advance HE and the British Council have developed a framework based on Athena Swan for use in 60 Brazilian institutions
  • In Canada, Athena Swan underpins the Government’s Dimensions pilot which covers five marginalised group and has 17 institutions taking part in the pilot
  • In India, supported by Advance HE and the British Council, the Government has set up GATI (Gender Advancement for Transforming Institutions), it follows the same process and principles as Athena Swan and 36 institutions are taking part in the pilot
  • In Ireland, 27 institutions take part and 20 institutions and 94 departments hold awards. Core and research funding is linked to awards
  • In the USA, the Athena Swan principles have been incorporated into the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s STEM Equity Achievement (SEA) Change Programme  which covers both gender and race. Some 26 institutions take part and five hold Bronze Awards
  • In Cyprus, Japan and New Zealand work is already underway to explore implementing schemes tailored to their specific contexts.


Of past Aurora participants who responded to a recent online survey:

  • 65 per cent had applied for promotion after engaging with Aurora and 66 per cent of those said it was Aurora that prompted them to do so
  • 83 per cent of those who had applied for promotion since completing Aurora were successful and 66 per cent of those attributed their success to the Aurora programme.

An externally-commissioned longitudinal report also found that:

  • Aurorans were twice as likely to report receiving a promotion than the comparison group (i.e. those not engaging with the programme). Three to six months after Aurora, 18.6 per cent of Aurorans said they had been promoted in the last 12 months, compared with 7.1 per cent of the comparison group.

While Athena Swan seeks to address structural barriers to women’s progress, our Aurora leadership development initiative gives individual women tools and inspiration that can transform their confidence and career trajectory.

Since its launch in 2013, more than 9,500 women from nearly 200 different institutions across the UK and Ireland have participated in Aurora. Just as the programme reaches its 10-year anniversary, it will reach the landmark of 10,000 alumnae on completion of this year’s cohorts.

Those who take part in Aurora say they value the guest speakers, the workshops and the opportunity to network with peers across the sector.

A recent online survey we carried out of women who had been on the Aurora programme in the eight years between 2013 and 2021 showed they believed it had boosted their career; of those who responded, 65 per cent said they had applied for promotion after engaging with Aurora and 66 per cent attributed that to Aurora.

Similarly, 83 per cent of those who responded to the survey and had applied for promotion were successful and 66 per cent said Aurora had helped them succeed in securing their promotion.

Drawing on the success of Aurora, Advance HE has also developed an international online leadership programme for women called She Leads which has enjoyed global impact with cohorts taking part from the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia.

So on this International Women’s Day, women across the world can be confident that their underrepresentation in senior positions in higher education is acknowledged. Here at Advance HE we know that women make up the majority of the workforce in higher education yet are under-represented in senior roles.

There is still so much to be done, but change is possible. As we mark our 5th anniversary year, we believe both Athena Swan and Aurora point a way forward and are already delivering results.

Find out more about Advance HE's work in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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