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Nearly three quarters of academic and professional women in higher education believe men are more likely to get senior positions

Research from Loughborough University has revealed that higher education is failing women on their path to senior roles.

Commissioned and funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, the Aurora longitudinal study ‘Onwards and upwards?’ is a five year project tracking the work experiences and aspirations of women working in academic and professional services in higher education.

In a new report published today by the Leadership Foundation the findings from the first year of the study have been released.

The findings show women in the sector have serious concerns about their place in the workforce. Nearly three quarters (72%) of the 1576 respondents believe men have a better chance of attaining leadership roles, with just 35% believing women have equal opportunities in promotion, and that women and men leaders receive equal respect. This is not a result of a lack of confidence, with 81% of women agreeing they felt confident putting themselves forward for positions of responsibility at work.

Despite a clear desire from women to progress, the study found just over two thirds of respondents had applied for a job move unsuccessfully at least once, and nearly one in five had done so four times or more. Specifically regarding unsuccessful promotion applications, nearly half have experienced at least one, and more than 11% have tried and failed at least four times.

The study also included interviews with women in higher education and found personal stories of the issues they have faced. Some quotes from these interviews include:

“I have been quite shocked at some of the decision making practices and sexism within my institution and am keen to challenge them. I am also keen to do well at work and sometimes find myself conflicted between protecting my job and challenging bad practice.” 

“There’s a lot of misogyny here. One of the supervisors was heard to say that there were too many women here now. So it’s an on-going battle”

The research at Loughborough University is being carried out by the School of Business and Economics and the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences.

Dr Sarah Barnard, member of the research team from the School of Business and Economics said: “It’s clear that many academic and professional women in higher education feel willing and able to take on leadership roles, but they perceive that university management practices and structures frequently hold them back. There is also a danger that their goodwill will be exploited by being placed in “glass cliff” situations where success is extremely hard to achieve, and by their own lack of confidence in seeking material rewards in return for their efforts.” 

Vijaya Nath, Director, Leadership Development at the Leadership Foundation commented on the findings: “This study shows not only is higher education failing to embrace diversity, but there is clear danger of institutions losing talent. It is unacceptable that nearly three quarters of women believe they are less likely to be promoted than a male counter-part. Ultimately, these are cultural issues that must be addressed across entire institutions if we are to see a change.

“And change is possible. We’ve seen first-hand, through our own leadership programme for women, Aurora, some universities are making great strides. The uptake and impact of these initiatives and those like Athena Swan is hugely positive and make for an optimistic outlook for the sector. Our plan is that this study acts as a benchmark for the sector over the next five years. It is also tracking the impact of Aurora, with the aim others can learn from our findings about the best interventions and we can continue to improve the programme. ”

Dr Barnard added: “The project team are grateful to the study participants for contributing to this work.  We look forward to continuing to investigate the experiences of academic and professional services women in the sector as the project progresses”.

Read the full ‘Onwards and upwards?’ year one report

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