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

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: PR 16/160

About the research
Between April 2015 and March 2016 (year one of the study) Loughborough researchers collected data from over 1,500 women working in academic and professional roles in higher education in the UK and Republic of Ireland. 1,270 Aurora participants were surveyed and 306 “comparison” women who had not undertaken Aurora completed an online survey. Ten Aurora participants and four mentors were interviewed. In subsequent years of the study, many of the same women will be followed up to see how their experiences and views may have changed, and many more women will be recruited to the project.

Find out more about the project:

Find out more about Aurora:

About Loughborough University
Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, putting it among the best universities in the world, and was named the best in the country for its student experience in the 2016 THE Student Experience Survey. Loughborough was ranked 4th in the Guardian University League Table 2017 and 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2017 and was also named Sports University of the Year by The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2017, and University of the Year in the What Uni Student Choice Awards 2015.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’ and is in the top 10 in England for research intensity. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

In September 2015 the University opened an additional academic campus in London’s new innovation quarter. Loughborough University London, based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities.



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