Dr Pat Goodwin CBiol FRSB, diversity champion for the RSB Council, discusses some of the findings from the ASSET 2016 report.
When it comes to academia, are a higher proportion of men than women promoted to their current position?
This is true according to the findings of the latest ASSET (Athena Surveys of Science Engineering and Technology), which reveals other concerning disparities between the work experiences of male and female academic staff working in HE institutions.
Annual statistics reported by The Equality Challenge Unit show that women are consistently under-represented among academics in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine (STEMM) and it has been suggested that this is related to gender differences in areas such as recruitment, promotion and pay.
In parallel with these statistical reports there have been three previous Athena Surveys of Science, Engineering and Technology (ASSET) which have examined the experiences, expectations and perceptions of inequalities in Higher Education institutions in the UK.
The report of the findings from ASSET 2016, which was commissioned by the Royal Society of Biology, the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Academy of Medical Sciences, has just been published. Six areas were covered by the questionnaire – perceptions of gender inequality, recruitment, job and career, caring responsibilities, training and leadership, and promotion and development.
Obtaining a representative random sample was challenging and details of the methodology and statistical analysis are in the full report, but in the end over 4,800 responses from 43 UK HE institutions, with 2495 from men and 2374 from women, were received through the survey for analysis.
The responses relating to career prospects suggest that, although the lack of women in senior academic positions has been highlighted for many years, men still have better prospects of promotion than women – 13.5% of men had been formally promoted to their current post compared with 9.1% of women, and more men (59.7%) than women (48.8%) had been encouraged or invited to apply for promotion.
One of the most concerning finding is the difference between the genders in perceptions of career prospects for women – 19.1% of women perceived that it is much easier for a man to reach a senior post than a woman, compared with only 3.6% of men.
67.6% of respondents reported having more men than women on their interview panel but this is not surprising given the relatively small number of women in senior positions, and raises a more general question of how to achieve an acceptable balance on committees without putting unreasonable time demands on minority groups.
Demands on respondents outside work were also investigated and again it is not surprising that more women than men had taken parental leave or cared for another adult. Of 11 options which could be available to facilitate return from parental leave only two – flexible hours and ‘keeping in touch’ days – were available to more than half of the respondents.
As well as looking at gender differences ASSET has, for the first time, been extended to cover ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability status. A relatively small proportion of respondents were in these minority groups so the findings from this part of the survey are somewhat limited. However, there was evidence that LGB women were under-represented as professors.
More encouragingly, when asked to rate the most important ‘equality item’ to consider when deciding to take up a post, Athena Swan Award came top, closely followed by childcare facility and staff networks.
However, looking to the future, more women than men want to continue a career in STEMM outside academia. The ASSET report makes ten recommendations to address the disparities highlighted by the survey, but it is clear that if HE institutions seriously want to tackle inequalities in career prospects and retain staff from minority groups, they need to come up with more radical strategies to help manage the work-life balance of all their employees.