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Gender, education and employment in education in Britain

Susan Finding
p. 173-204


This paper proposes to examine the place of women in education today as pupils and students, and that of women working in education as teachers and academics. Looking at contemporary social phenomena it traces trends in the education of girls since the 1970s and looks at the status and salaries of women working in education in contemporary Britain and in particular in the higher echelons of the educational field.  While girls have equalled and surpassed boys in educational achievement, the subjects studied and level of study remain clearly gendered. Women’s presence in the teaching profession has spread from the primary sector upwards. This has not been accompanied by equivalent levels of pay or responsibility. Awareness of this phenomenom grew at the end of the twentieth century and, in a political climate where social equality had become a priority, attempts to counter this insidious discrimination came from both pressure groups and government policy. These have yet to produce widespread results despite renewed legislation against discrimination.

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It is a fact that girls do better than boys academically but that the success girls enjoy at school is all too often not mirrored later in life.

(David Bell, Chief Inspector of Schools, Speech to the Fawcett Society, March 8, 2004)

  • 1 The Economist, 21 July 2005, credits the Wall Street Journal with the coining of the term twenty ye (...)

1 Concern about racial and sexual equality during the mid 1970s and the second wave of feminism led to a growing awareness of the unequal position of womenat work and in society in Britain. However the passing of legislation against discrimination (1970 Equal Pay Act, effective from December 1975, 1975 Sex Discrimination Act and the setting up of the Equal Opportunities Commission) was merely a beginning to the process of tackling the question. Issues of class and gender began to be explored in academic papers (Papanek; Deem 1980). The term ‘glass ceiling’, referring to an invisible barrier to the highest posts of responsibility, appears to have been coined in the United States in the 1980s and applied to women in business who had ‘cracked’ the barrier1 (Morrison, White, 1987). In Britain at the beginning of the twenty-first century, women who reached top flights in their fields as Chief Executive, or Managing Director of household name institutions or are the top women lawyers, high-ranking trade unionists and women reaching ministerial rank were still rare enough to be remarked upon in the press.

  • 2  Margaret Hodge, Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education, then for Children following L (...)

2Education has been the traditional field in which women have been able to gain ministerial experience. It was seen as an appropriate extension of the caring professions, a concession to their political acumen, allowing them to operate at equivalent level, but relegating them and their competencies to less prestigious ministries than those occupied by men. Women have nevertheless left their mark as Secretary of State for Education, notably Ellen Wilkinson (1945-1947), Margaret Thatcher (1970-1974), Shirley Williams (1976-1979) and Gillian Shepherd (1995-1997). More recently women have reached cabinet responsibility in other areas including, in 2009, Home Secretary (Jacqui Smith) and the Foreign Office (Margaret Beckett), while the departments concerned with social welfare and education often serve as springboards for a cabinet career. Estelle Morris (2001-2002) and Ruth Kelly (2004-2007) succeeded David Blunkett and Charles Clarke as Secretary of State for Education2. The situation however remained unsatisfactory, and, in 2011, a campaign for more equal political representation, Counting Women In, was launched by  the Fawcett Society, the Hansard Society, the Electoral Reform Society and the Centre for Women and Democracy. The educational field has been as fraught with difficulties as others in terms of making inroads towards more equality in attainment and responsibilities.

3Amongst controversial affairs concerning educational issues at the turn of the last century, several seem to have centred on cases concerning girls. In October 2002 a girl and her mother were at the centre of an administrative tussle between head teacher and the local authority over her exclusion from school and tribunal case. The most famous cause célèbre, Laura Spence, an academically-gifted student from a comprehensive school, was turned down by Oxford, only to be given a place at Harvard. The case raised heated debate about social class and access to top British universities suffering from inflated social snobbery. Similarly in the row over the introduction of student fees in 1998 it was women students at Oxford who took the protests furthest and risked exclusion by refusing to pay.  Not once was their sex mentioned. Their gender was not at issue, nor was it mentioned in the debates. It may be necessary to reconsider those cases in that light. These cases are at the same time a reflection of girls’ achievements at school and their dilemma when reaching higher education. This contribution therefore examines the place of women in education in Britain today as pupils then as students, and that of women working in education as teachers and academics.

Equal opportunities in education?

4At the beginning of the 1980s a highly pessimistic picture was being drawn concerning equal opportunities for women at work and in education in Britain.

Most women work in low-paid, low-status, semi-skilled or unskilled jobs, with little expectation of moving on to better things. While girls are at school there are already strong influences at work to restrict their opportunities. Their interests are directed away from maths and sciences, so that fewer girls than boys take qualifying exams in these subjects. Careers advice is often inadequate and sex-biased: girls are given little encouragement to train outside the conventional female spheres of work. (…) most girls go into clerical employment or other jobs with less than eight weeks’ training.
Those who go on to universities and colleges find there is little overt discrimination. But a large majority of girls sign on for courses in arts and social sciences. By this stage, they don't have much option -–they haven’t taken the right exams at school to qualify for the traditionally male-dominated fields of study. (Coote and Gill : 32)

5 Attempts to raise public awareness of the phenomena described how it operated directly and indirectly, openly and insidiously (non-provision of woodwork classes for girls, or domestic science for boys, and patriarchal stereotypes of women’s domestic role reproduced in textbooks) (Harman). It was an open secret that the 11+ examination for entry to grammar school education, the exclusive and natural path to university, was biased against girls to ensure a more even distribution between sexes. Had it not been, girls would have been ‘over’-represented with a larger percentage of girls making the grade than boys. It was more difficult for girls to pass the 11+ not because of their lack of academic skills, quite the contrary, on account of their abilities. Positive discrimination operated in favour of boys, at the expense of girls. It was not therefore a question of academic ability but of social bias. Things had changed by the middle of the 1990s.

6Although by 1989 it was noted that “a real improvement in the position of women” (Hudson and Williams: 105) in the educational sphere had already taken place in the decades since various reports (Early Leaving 1954, Crowther 1959 Robbins 1963) had identified the waste of female talent in secondary and higher education, the change in emphasis between the negative interpretation in 1981 and the positive  one from 1989 is not due to intervening developments but rather to differences in perspective. The 1981 book took the static statistics as they stood at the time. The 1989 publication took a dynamic viewpoint and looked at evolution over time. It also explained the improvements  as being due to general changes in education in the post-war period such as the phasing out of single sex schools and the introduction of comprehensive education. Over the same period, others identify positive action on gender issues (syllabus content, choice of subjects, raising aspirations) whether they be defined as ‘girl-friendly’ or ‘girl-centred’ (See Deem, 1992: 122 ; Arnot, David and Weiner 1999). However statistical evidence of women’s progress in education in past decades is belied by a continuing invisible barrier blocking them off from the higher echelons. Paradoxically, although by 1992,

some limited progress has been made in achieving gender equality, so far as white middle-class girls are concerned (for example improvements in the proportion of girls taking chemistry and maths in GCSE and other exams for 16 year-olds, more girls taking A levels and entering higher education) [...] at the same time there has also been regression (for example there are now fewer female secondary heads than in the 1960s) (Deem: 125)

7The issue of women in education and what were termed ‘institutional impediments’ began to be identified and quantified, and research began to bear fruit as witness the growing bibliography on the subject in the early 1990s (Ozga; Giles; Adler et al; Ouston; Quinn; Acker and David; Dawtrey, Holland and Hammer; Walsh and Morley).In turn attempts to reverse the now recognised failure to address the educational bias against girls also began to come to fruition as girls’ academic attainment rose. In January 1990 the inaugural meeting in Birmingham of ‘Through the Glass Ceiling’, a group of senior women managers in higher education, marked a further step in this process.

Women’s education

Compulsory and post-compulsory education

8 Across all sectors of ‘pre-university’ education (compulsory schooling to the age of 16, post-compulsory education between the ages of 16 and 18 in sixth forms, and colleges of further education), measured in terms of examination passes and grades (GCSE, NVQ, A level), there was a numerical progression in girls' achievements. Girls not only caught up but overtook boys’ achievements in many instances. There nevertheless remains a ‘subject lag’ reflecting a gender bias in choice of study. This is not specific to the UK but is to be found in many countries : "particularly in high-income countries boys are more likely to drop out of secondary education than girls, and younger women are increasingly better educated than young men." (OECD2012)

9 In Britain, there was an overall improvement in academic results in GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education, sat at 16, the end of compulsory education) by both young women and young men  in the final decades of the twentieth century but women's academic success improved faster and overtook that of men. By the academic year 1995/1996 girls were outperforming boys, achieving a greater percentage of higher grades at GCSE and a lower percentage of low grades. (ONS 1998, Table 2.1) By 2004 44% of girls were obtaining top grades in examinations, compared with 41% of boys (Bell 2004).The overall statistics of numbers of children achieving the best grades in 5 GCSE showed girls maintaining their predominance over boys over the decade 1992 to 2002. (Table 1) Further analysis shows the continuing gap diminishing only slightly over the years 2006/7 to 2010/11.

Girls outperform boys in all the main attainment indicators at Key Stage 4. The gap between the proportion of girls and boys achieving 5 or more A*-C grades at GCSE or equivalent is 7.0 percentage points, with 84.0 per cent of girls achieving this indicator compared to 77.0 per cent of boys. This gap has steadily decreased over the last 5 years from 9.0 percentage points in 2006/07 and 7.5 percentage points in 2009/10. (DfE 2012)

Table 1 : Pupils achieving five or more GCSE grades A*-C or equivalent, UK

Table 1 : Pupils achieving five or more GCSE grades A*-C or equivalent, UK

Source: National Statistics Online 8 January 2004,​cci/​nugget.asp?id=434 consulted on 12 November  2005.

  • 3  ‘GCSE results : Why are girls doing better ?’, BBC News,Talking Point, 27 August 2002, http://news (...)

10It is paradoxical that this success at school for girls was paralleled by a growing realisation of ‘gender gap’ as achievement swung the other way with boys performing badly. Explanations for the differences range from, on the one hand, distractions such as football or computer games for boys, the anti-learning laddish culture (school is not ‘cool’) and peer pressure, and, on the other, girls’ determination and earlier maturing, their headstart in reading or the number of female teachers. More controversially some accuse the "feminisation of the examination process" citing questions requiring less factual detail and more empathy3 or the failure of boys to come to terms with gender issues which are not "consistent with feminist philosophy" (Deem, 1992: 125).

11Despite girls performing better the genderimbalance in subjects taken shows a net preference in choice of subjects. In 1978 only 14% of those taking CSE Physics were girls, under 3% of those taking technical drawing. However 90% of those sitting domestic subjects and 75% of those taking commerce were girls (Coote and Gill: 334). Twenty years later a greater percentage of  women gained good results in the humanities (English, History, Modern Languages), whereas men obtained marginally better results in technical subjects (Craft, Design and Technology). Results for the sciences (Mathematics, Science and Geography) were similar for both men and women (DfEE 1998)4.

12Notwithstanding pessimistic analyses of the impact of educational policy (notably moves concerning choice, competition between schools and parent power, and, but more paradoxically, the effects of mixed schooling on both sexes when choosing subjects conforming to sex-stereotypes (Thomas; Miles and Middleton 1995; Lawrie and Brown 1992) on women’s participation and success rates at school, steady but slow general improvement can be noted.

Gender imbalance in further education courses

13Both men and women increased their participation in education and training aged 16. In further education however, by 1997-1998, women had reversed the situation of 1985-1986 when fewer women than men went on to further education (77% of women, 80% of men). Women now achieved a greater participation rate than men (87% as compared to 83%) (DfEE 1998, Table 2.2). At the age of 18, the statistics had evolved from 31% to 60% for women, almost doubling, and from 42% to 62% for men (DfEE 1998: 20). In other words, although young women stayed on at school massively, their participation at the end of full-time education or training still dropped slightly compared to that of young men. Young women appeared to be choosing shorter further education courses, and/or not finishing the course.

14Further Education Funding Council statistics for 1995/1996 revealed that more women than men were pursuing GNVQ courses: 1.700.000 compared to 1.300.000. There was again a heavy preponderance of men in construction and engineering, and women in the humanities, health and community care and business courses. Science, agriculture, hotel and catering were less differentiated (DfEE 1998, Table 2.3). Reports revealed that vocational courses excluded women with HNDs and GNVQs being male-orientated and less likely to take female candidates. Lack of courses for women at this level were blamed for the problem of recruiting lower ability women with subject segregation compounding the low proportion of women entering these courses, which are generally technically orientated. New courses intended to provide qualifications in new sectors of work such as the childcare industry were thought to be bridging this particular gap, albeit somewhat mistakenly (Davis; Trouvé 2006).

  • 5  NVQ equivalents : Level 1 Basis level education (GCSE Grades 4 and below)Youth Training certificat (...)

15Women nevertheless achieved greater success in further education and training than before, and than men. In 1995, women obtained 58% of all qualifications in further education (reflecting the numbers and percentages of women in further education). However their preponderance in Levels 1, 2 and 3 of NVQ (low qualifications) and the lower percentages than men in Level 4 (NVQ, HND etc.)5 were identified as possible indicators of gender issues such as less ambition or motivation.

16As in education in general, women achieved statistical equality with men on training courses and in apprenticeships. However there was a marked stereotyping visible in the type of courses chosen. The two most popular branches, engineering manufacturing (15% of all apprentices) and business administration (14%) took respectively 4% and 78% of all women apprentices in 1998. Youth trainingshows a similar pattern. The percentages of men and women were roughly equal overall, but marked divisions occurred in occupational areas chosen by either, with crafts and related courses being selected by men, the personal and caring professions by women (DfEE 1998, Tables 2.9 and 2.10).

17When reaching GCE A levels, women yet again regularly registered greater overall success than men. Gaining higher grades, they overtook their male peers. In 1978 40.000 girl school leavers had two or more A level passes (44%), compared to 51.110 boys (Coote and  Gill: 324). While women consistently registered a slightly higher success rate at one A level over the twenty years from 1975 to 1995, reflecting the same scenario as with NVQs, the percentage achieving 2 or more A levels rose from below that of men (12% compared to 14.5%) in 1975 to over the male success rate by the end of the 1980s with the 1995/1996 figures at 23% compared to 20% for men (DfEE 1998, Table 2.6). By 2001/2002 58% of girls but only 34% of boys gained two or more A levels or equivalent (ONS 2004) (Table 2).

Table 2:  Young people achieving two or more GCE A levels or equivalent, UK

Table 2:  Young people achieving two or more GCE A levels or equivalent, UK

Source: National Statistics Online, 8 January 2004,​cci/​nugget.asp?id=434 consulted on 12 November 2005.

18  As at GCSE level and in further education a marked subject lag remained despite the greater success rate. The number of women moving into traditionally ‘male’ subject areas failed to grow apace. Women yet again were more present in the arts, English and languages, social studies and history, and biology whereas more men sat mathematics, geography, economics, physics and chemistry (DfEE, 1998: 22). However some insisted that "the extent of gender specialisation should not be overstated" (Abercrombie and Warde et al., 2000: 216) and noted that this too is being eroded. Twenty years previously 17% of girls with 2 or more A levels took science subjects, 22% mixed subjects, and an overwhelming majority (61%) arts and social science. The distribution was more even for boys, but nevertheless showed a preference for science subjects (40%, 24% and 36% respectively) (Coote and Gill: 334).

19If social class remained the overriding social characteristic underlying under-achievement, it could be reinforced by further elements such as ethnic origin or gender or a combination of all three. Girls were found to have a greater class gap for staying on in any form of full-time education at low levels of attainment than at higher compared to that of boys. Thus greater social differences between girls staying on and those not were probable than for boys (Paterson 1995: 86). As a result research into under-achievement in Scotland at the end of the 1980s revealed a pattern that continued to ring an echo.

Although there are significant gender differences at all of the selection points discussed above, the class differences are very similar for males and females. Thus, in all classes, girls are more likely than boys to stay on and pass three or more Highers [equivalent to two or more GCE A Levels], but then are less likely to apply. The net result is that, in all social class, school-leaver entry rates to higher education are now roughly the same for males and females. (Paterson 1995: 86)

20 It must however be remembered that, as a result of the success of girls in overcoming handicaps inherent in society and the educational establishment, under-achievement became less of a problem for girls than for boys. Boys’ underperformance in turn became a subject for research and debate. At the end of their schooling girls generally achieved better results in greater numbers in the various examinations sanctioning the different stages. How did they fare at university?

Higher education 

21Gender was one of the factors (with social class and race) identified as affecting access to higher education as early as the 1960s (Robbins Report 1963) (Mortimer, Blackstone 1982).  Women had bridged the gap in overall numbers attending university by 1990 even if this was often by dint of part-time attendance. From 1992 on there were proportionately more women undergraduates than men (53% in 2003) (DES, 2/92; 26/93). Total student population figures (including graduate students) showed females accounting for 56.2% (Macleod).

22This can be traced in the statistics which show the number of women students increasing far faster than that of men. From 1970/1971 to 1995/1996 the number of women in full time undergraduate courses tripled. That of men slightly more than doubled. In part-time higher education the number of women increased more than twenty-fold. That of men less than doubled. (DfEE, 1998, Table 2.7) Ten years further on, between 1980 and 2008, the overall number of male students had increased by 2 in the intervening 28 years, that of women students had increased fivefold (see Table 5 in Coron in this volume).

23UNESCO statistics show that the percentage of female students in higher education in the UK rose from 45% in 1985, to 51% in 1995 and 57% in 2005 (putting Britain in the leading nations behind Scandinavia, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Hungary in Europe, and Canada and New Zealand in the rest of the world) (OECD 2008). However the pattern visible in further education repeated itself here, with men more numerous in postgraduate study. In 1970/1971 there were three times as many men as women studying for graduate degrees full and part time (48,000 compared to 13,000). In 1995/1996 there were still more men, but the proportion was down to around a mere15% more (174,000 to 149,000). Subject preferences remain marked. Degrees leading to the medical and educational professions are heavily dominated by women (80%) whereas technical, engineering and computing courses receive the equivalent percentage of male students.

24Similarly the pattern in success rate seen in the GCSE results was repeated. According to statistics for 2009, approximately the same percentage of women and men achieve first class degrees. Lower down the gap between men and women was decreasing, although women perform better than the men. 47% gained a second class degree and only 6% a third or pass whereas 41.7% of men gained a second and 8.5% a third or pass (ONS, 2011, Table 6). Research seeking to explain why many more men gain first-class degrees than women at Cambridge, 26% of men and 16% of women in 2002, revealed that study aims and techniques differ. “Women seek understanding and wide knowledge of their subject in university studies while men strive for performance and public recognition.” (Hunt) The subject range also mattered. Women were on a more equal footing for firsts in law and chemistry, but not in maths, English, history and languages. Speed and ‘intellectual muscle-flexing’ served the men well in the latter, whereas women wanted to ‘understand first principles’ and were less assertive with their supervisors.  

25 When seeking to gain further qualificationswomen’s choice for postgraduate study wasgenerally more practical and less academic in orientation. More women prefered postgraduate diplomas (including the PGCE) than men, whereas men were more likely to continue with a higher research degree (PhD) (DfEE 1998: 23). However Britain was found to have a strong representation of women in research-only posts (37%) by a European survey. This was offset by the fact that these were more often than not on fixed-term and not indefinite contracts (Helsinki Group at Madrid Conference on Women and Science, June 2002) (Curtis  2002a). By the 2009/10 academic year, the picture was changing : "Women were in the majority across all degree levels and modes with the exception of full-time postgraduates, where 50.4% were male.The proportion of female students was highest among other undergraduates (64.7%)." (ECU, 2011).

Women at work in education

Most primary teachers are female, and so are 53% of degree students. But will there ever be a day when half the top jobs in education go to women?  (Weale)

26In 1998, over 40% of full-time women workers occupied clerical jobs (Abercrombie and Warde, 2000: 201) and three-quarters of all working women came under five occupational groups: associate professional and technical (e.g. nurses), administrative and secretarial, personal services (e.g. caring for children or older people), sales and customer service, or non-skilled manual work (Equal Opportunities Commission). The degree to which occupational segregation by gender took place in the workforce (Hudson and Williams, 2000 (1989): 93) is reproduced in education. The issue of women in management extends to education. From the lower reaches of the educational system, to the highest levels, women were significantly under-represented in posts of responsibility, yet by 2009, three-quarters of all degrees awarded in the UK in education (as compared to computing, engineering, health/welfare) went to women(OECD 2011).


27  In primary education, at the national level in 2002 82% of teachers were women, a situation which dates back to the early twentieth century (Trouvé 2005) whereas only 50% of primary head teachers were. At the secondary level, while the balance between men and women teachers was equal, only 20% of head teachers were women. The corresponding figures for England and Wales given by Professor Alan Smithers, Liverpool University are 84% and 33% for primary education, 55% and 30% for secondary schools (Weale). The imbalance was attributed to both lack of confidence on the part of the women, and social assumptions that “the lead role in any organisation is best filled by a man" (Spokewoman for NUT).6 While these reasons may be true, a further explanation can be adduced. It may be that women refused to enter the harsh competitive environment that these positions entail or to embrace male models of behaviour. Were headships to be less stressful, less incompatible with being a parent, women might find them more attractive. Research into school cultures in 1995 revealed “evident continuing dominance of white male cultures”. The management of schools by LEAs was also found to be run on “paternalistic rather than partnership” lines, ignoring issues of gender concerning both the pupils and the teachers (Arnot, David and Weiner, 1997: 139). Under the impetus of pressure from women who found it less difficult than men to place the demands of family on an equal footing with those of work, work practices slowly began to change.


28Despite the growing number of women academics universities were still seen as bastions of male dominance. In 2003/4 40% of the total academics were women. 35% of full-time staff were women reflecting the general trend of more women working part-time than men. 62% of female academics and 77 % of male academics worked full-time. 38% of women staff and 23% of male staff worked part-time. (Table 5)

Table 3: Summary of academic staff in all UK institutions 2003/04

Mode of employment
















Academic employment function

Teaching only




Research only




Teaching & research




Neither teaching nor research









Senior lecturers  & researchers












Other grades




Terms of employment

Open-ended/ permanent




Fixed-term contract




Source: HESA, Resources of Higher Education Institutions 2003/04 ;​holisdocs/​pubinfo/​staff/​staff0304.htm consulted on 12 November 2005.

29This reflects an increasing trend towards part-time work for both men and women. 34% of the full-time staff in 2001/2, 54% of the part-time lecturers, and 37.7% of the combined total were women. (Table 6) The number of women was increasing at a rate of 5% per annum as a result of the effect of growing academic success in education generally, leading more women to gain the qualifications necessary for an academic career. But this also echoes disenchantment with the ivory tower on the part of men. Men still nevertheless continued to benefit from greater job security. In 2002/3 48% of women academics were employed on a fixed term contract, compared with 38% of men (AUT 2004). The larger numbers of incoming women academics combined with the changes in the nature of the job market in academe meant that women were adversely hit by the latter.

Table ­4 Higher education posts (gender, full-/part-time) 1995/6, 2001/2, 2002/3






32,165 (81.2%)

78,055 (91.5%)

110,220 (88.2%)


7,460 (18.8%)

7,295 (8.5%)

14,755 (11.8%)







41,225 (76.4%)

78,675 (88.2%)

119,900 (83.8%)


12,725 (23.6%)

10,520 (11.8%)

23,245 (16.2%)







42,095 (74.5%)

77,815 (87.4%)

119,915 (82.4%)


14,385 (25.5%)

11,215 (12.6%)

25,595 (17.6%)





Sources: The Guardian, May 28, 2003; AUT, ‘Women academics continue to get a raw deal’, News, September 2004,​index.cfm?articleid=916; AUT, 2004, Gender and mode of employment tables p.11.

30 In 2005 the 21 higher education institutions in England (out of a total 131) headed by women was “an all-time high” but “a high level of male domination continues, particularly in the universities.” This represented 16% in England, and the same in Scotland. In 1990 there were none. The first female Vice-Chancellors were installed as an ‘accidental’ consequence of the transformation of polytechnics where a few women were heads, into universities in 1992. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the collegial voice of British Universities, lost its all-male status. It is no coincidence that the relative presence of women staff is higher in post-1992 institutions (42% in 1999 according to the Betts Committee) compared to a mere 27% in more ancient establishments. The latter appear to have had a stronger male tradition, whereas the latter were founded in a period, the 1960s and 1970s, when more innovative and less traditional courses, methods and staffing practices were predominant. Male predominance in the most prestigious and ancient institutions continued. The appointment of a woman Vice Chancellor at Cambridge in 2002 could be seen as yet another victory in the shattering of the glass ceiling, breaking through into prestigious and male dominated fields. Although she was not the first woman Vice Chancellor, there were already a dozen others, and can therefore hardly be called a ‘token’ woman, Alison Richard, an anthropologist, Newnham College graduate (a women’s college) and previously Provost at Yale, became the sole woman vice-chancellor in the Russell group of leading research-leduniversities which are considered to be have the worst record on women’s appointments (Curtis 2003; Woodward). With only 15% of its lecturers being women, and 6% of its professors, Cambridge was criticized for its white male exclusiveness, whilst St Andrew’s, another top institution, appointed its first female professor in 1993.

Table 5: Senior posts in higher education 2002




Senior lecturers

6 500 (26.5%)

18 000

24 500


2 000 (14.3%)

12 000

14 000


8 500 (22%)

30 000

38 500

Source: The Guardian, February 4, 2003.

31 The proportion of women in senior academic jobs falls dramatically the higher one rises. This phenomenon may be called the inverse responsibilities law (by analogy with Tudor Hart's inverse care law which describes how health care is available in inverse proportion to need). In the UK in 2002, there were nearly three times as many male senior lecturers, and six times as many professorships held by men. (Table 7) From well over one third of the total workforce, the proportion of women senior lecturers falls to under one-third 29% in 2003 (26.5% in 2002) and again to just over a seventh 15% (14.3%) of the professorial college. Old universities had a lower proportion (8% of professorships), new universities a higher (16%) according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (Berliner 2002; Crum Ewinget a. 2005). As the lobby ‘Through the Glass Ceiling’ reports: “The trend is very gradually upwards, but there is a huge distance yet to go” (Crum Ewing et al 2005). Women were still over-represented in the lower echelons as lecturers, junior researchers or other low grades. In 2009, it was reported that science and engineering were the fields in which this gender gap was most noticeable on the European scale:

Despite their relative high rates of academic attainment in science and engineering, a significant gender gap develops for women across the academic career span with women’s occupying only 9% of top level academic posts in science and engineering in 2003, a very small increase from 1999 when 8% of top academic posts in these fields were held by women (Lynch and Feeley).

Research v. teaching

32Fears that reforms proposed by the government in higher education (Higher Education White Paper 2003) would increase pay and opportunities gender gap were expressed. The elite universities especially were especially targeted for their 'cultural problem' (by which attitudinal and institutional sexism and racism are meant). The disproportionate preponderance of men active in research (40% of all men academic staff, 22% of all women) especially in the most research active age range (35-54) identified by the AUT (Association of University Teachers) in 2000 would, it thought, only be accentuated by the proposed measures. According to the AUT chair of its women’s committee, women, black people and the disabled would be channelled into teaching roles in second-rate institutions due to difficulties in finding research posts in elite institutions (AUT 2000; Curtis).  Research appeared to be considered as ‘real’ work, whereas teaching was merely an extension of the caring and nurturing role traditionally attributed to women.


33The difficulties women experienced in senior higher education posts led to several initiatives. Through the Glass Ceiling was set up at first, as a support group among senior women managers in academic institutions in the late 1980s, and held its first formal event in 1990. Since then it has grown (although membership figures are not published) and has lost no opportunity to provide data and opinion on national policy on women in academia. These include the 1996 Dearing Committee (NCIHE) and the 1999 Bett Committee (higher education pay and conditions). It lobbied for women to be represented on the internal audits and specialist advice on the Research Assessment Evaluations, and put pressure on the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) to increase diversity in academic employment, leading to the creation of the Commission on University Career Opportunity (CUCO) in 1994 and the first report universities’ equal opportunities policies and practices. When the CUCO was superceded by the Higher Education Equality Challenge Unit, its first director was Professor Joyce Hill, former Chair of Through the Glass Ceiling (Crum Ewing et al 2005).

34Through the Glass Ceiling also helped set up projects to promote "Women in Science, Engineering and Technology" (WISET) (Scotland) and Athena (England). Various reports looked at the particular problem of Sexism in Science, title of the Greenfield Report. Lady Greenfield, Director of Royal Institution of Great Britain, spoke diplomatically of ‘a leaky pipeline’ not a ‘glass ceiling’. Professor Dame Julia Higgins, Vice-President of Royal Society, thought it was less discrimination on appointment but more ‘hurdles’ on their career paths (notably breaks to have families) which went against women’s attainment (Curtis 2002).  The Royal Society and professional Chartered Institutes were given as examples of Institutional sexism, where the number of women starting out was as great as that of men, but progress up the career ladder follows the inverse responsibilities law. A further instance of professional concern about women’s place in science was the report published by the European Molecular Biology Organisation conference and report, The Glass Ceiling for Women in the Life Sciences: the issues of gender bias (June 2001). In higher education, cases of sex discrimination over promotion were brought before employment tribunals (for example at Huddersfield University in 2002) (NATFHE).

35Predictions were that as the female factor works through the education system, and girls who benefit from their qualifications feed into the system, the proportion of women will increase at all levels of higher education. However some hold that there will never be total parity, since although there was greater awareness of equal opportunities, “university academic life is not highly compatible with having young children because it is so demanding” (Dr. Christina Hughes, Senior lecturer in Sociology, Warwick University, Weale). A 2009 report concluded little had changed in this respect throughout Europe.

The growing marketisation and commercialisation of education, particularly of higher education, has important gender implications. The highly competitive,macho culture which marketisation promotes discourages women from occupying senior managerial posts and from advancing to senior research and academic positions. The 24/7 culture of work that marketisation promotes is often premised on the assumption that one is not a primary carer, and this really disadvantages women. (Lynch and Feeley)

36Those who were in top positions were frequently those who do not have children, concludes sociologist and co-chair of Gender and Education Association, Dr. Christina Hughes. Others beg to differ, arguing that women’s priorities differ from those of men, or that it could be an advantage to be a woman in some universities to benefit from preferential treatment positive action might bring.

Equal pay in education ?

37 The 1970 Equal Pay legislation supposedly made discrimination between men and women at work illegal. It does not force companies to employ women at equivalent levels of responsibility. As a result management generally is still male dominated. Nearly two-thirds of women workers are in a very limited number of jobs. One-third of those are either sales assistants, secretaries and nurses, low-paid occupations with little responsibility (Pandya). Women working full-time earn nearly 20% less than men overall. The situation is worse for those working part-time (40%) and this is compounded by the fact that more women work part-time than men. On average that represents 65% of men’s average earnings according to the ILO (Fleming). The Equal Opportunities Commission has dubbed this double-whammy the ‘glass ceiling and sticky floor’ and its Chair, Julie Mellor, denounced “the shameful truth that Britain is still failing to make any significant progress towards closing the gender pay gap7.”

38 The teaching world and academia are no different from the business world. In schools equal pay scales were phased in during the late 1950s after a long-standing professional lobby (having been adopted as NUT national policy from 1919) (Trouvé 2001). Despite being protected by this measure, women teachers’ average pay is lower than that of men since fewer women reach the senior posts and their numbers are greater in lower-paid jobs. During the 1990s the gender pay gap in higher education stood at around 16%. In 2010-2011 average UK salaries for full-time academic staff stood at £43,548 for women and £49,627for men (Times Higher Education, 10 May 2012). Based on those figures, ten years after it had been estimated that women earned a salary that equalled 81.6% of the men’s earnings (AUT figures, Curtis 2003), that figure had only increased by 6 percentage points.

39 There is no nationwide agreement for equal pay, and no national pay scales in higher education. Each institution has its own system. The 1999 Bett Review into Higher Education Pay and Conditions included a recommendation (R59) that “Each university and HE college should have, and publish, a clear statement of its policies on equal opportunities and of the steps it is taking to ensure equality for women and ethnic minorities.” In the 2004 study, at the outset the difference in pay levels between men and women lecturers was slight but rose to a significant 15% difference for those aged between 31 and 50, falling back to 10% by retirement (HESA figures, Curtis 2004).It was recognised that if part-time staff were added into the equation, the gender pay gap was 18%. Averages conceal extremes. Some men earned more than half as much again that their female colleagues as at King’s College, London (AUT, 2000; Pike). “It’s a bit more than a glass ceiling, it’s more like a cast iron one. It’s not valuing the work women do”, commented Andrew Pike, NAFTHE national officer for higher education (Berliner 2003). Women academics began to sue their institutions over unequal pay as the cases of Lorraine Shaw, at Liverpool John Moores University and Dr. Elke Pioch, at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School show.  In both cases the threat of legal action through the Equal Opportunities Commission forced the universities to re-evaluate their position on the pay scale and grant them back pay.

40 In the ivory, redbrick or glass towers of academe, women academics suffer from exactly the same factors contributing to the gender pay gap in the workforce in general identified by the Equal Pay Task Force in 2001: discrimination in pay, occupational segregation and the unequal weight born by women for family responsibilities (EPTF, 2001). Reasons given for the discrepancies in higher education are career interruption for children, promotion procedures, and the patriarchal mode dominant in most universities. The preponderance of women on fixed-term contract: 42% of university staff in 2000 were employed on such terms: 38% of men, and 50% of women academics (AUT figures; Curtis), also reproduces the part-time, insecure and low-paid nature of female work generally.  However it is to be noted that the pay gap grows as one goes up what can be termed the social scale in academia, from low status higher education colleges up to the elite Russell Group universities as the following table issued by the University and College Union in 2007 clearly indicates:

  • 8  Russell Group : an association of 20 major research-intensive universities from Birmingham and Bri (...)

Table 6: HEI (Higher Education Institutions)groupings8 and gender pay gaps 2005-6

Number of institutions

Average gender pay gap %

Russell Group



Other pre-92



1994 Group






HE/specialist college



Source: analysis of HESA data carried out by University and College Union.

41Research on gender imbalance in academia in Scotland found there was “persistent occupational gender segregation in both the higher and further education sectors” (Centre for Public Policy and Management, 2007: 65) and issued a number of recommendations to structure and accompany female academic managers’ career patterns.


42As a result of its findings on pay NATFHE and the Centre for Public Policy and Management recommended higher education institutions conduct reviews of equal pay, appointment and promotion procedures, family-friendly employment practices, and equality of treatment for those working part-time or on fixed contracts. The Higher Education Funding Committees of England, Scotland and Wales published recommendations for stronger equal opportunities. A Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff was set up consisting of fourteen representatives of Higher Education Institutes, thirteen higher education trade union representatives and three observers, which published guidelines for equal pay procedures and remedial action in March 2002, Equal Pay Reviews: Guidance for Higher Education Institutions.

43The worst-case scenario envisaged by Christina Hughes,

We are in danger of creating a vast female research labour force who are blocked from progressing and kept in a cycle of insecurity as they struggle to find funding almost every year to keep them in even these lowly positions. (Berliner, 2002),

44led her to advise female academics who want to succeed to do one of three things: stay single, marry a colleague in the same field, or « work smarter » (a similar piece of advice to that found as being relevant for undergraduate success) using all the tricks of the trade to get noticed by putting themselves forward in the media, at conferences and networking. The Higher Education Funding Councils for England, Scotland and Wales commissioned research into the situation of women, and other groups affected by discrimination in pay and working conditions. Recommendations did not go as far as positive discrimination but concentrated on introducing a code of good practice as to the internal overseeing of diversity implementation (HEFC 2005/19).

45Various solutions have been attempted to reverse or at least remedy the situation, to raise the glass ceiling or mend the leaky pipe. In the 1970s legislation was passed to outlaw sexist practices (Employment Protection Act 1975, Equal Pay Act 1970, Equal Opportunities Commission). The ancillary lifting of the artificial positive discrimination towards boys applied to 11+ results was abandoned with the coming of comprehensive education. However the pendulum swung back with concern again being expressed about boys’ underperformance. Co-education was thought to be an answer to this : in fact many now feel single-sex education is beneficial for both sexes, allowing girls to freely follow scientific and technical training which would otherwise be sneered at, and helping boys concentrate and emulate each other (Bell  2004).

46 Female role models such as Nobel Prize winner Dorothy Hodgkins, and women holding ministerial posts in the New Labour cabinets, were held up for emulation, and interviewed about their adopting ‘male’ techniques and attitudes to study, giving advice about how to ‘work smarter’ or ‘wising up’ in higher education posts of responsibility (David and Woodward). The 2002 Work/Life Balance legislation and Employment Laws operative from April 2003 enthroned more flexible working practices, lengthened maternity leave and pay making the choice between child and career less problematic (Work Foundation).Formal self-imposed measures were taken to encourage Higher education institutions to increase the ratio of female professors in science via the Charter for Women in Science (22 June 2005) and Athena SWAN awards given to establishments which demonstrate progession in career equality. By 2012, over 50% of scientific universities with scientific departments and faculties are part of the movement, and 124 hold awards.

47The Scottish Government, particularly attentive to social equality issues, released research on the gender (im)balance in teaching and made recommendations which notably sought to encourage men to enter the profession in order to enhance the social status of the job (Riddell et al.).  The Women and Work Commission Report Shaping a Fairer Future, published in February 2006 resulted in further requirements to be implemented by local government in order “to address the gender segregation of jobs, raise girls’ aspirations at school, to provide women with the opportunities to undertake quality, part-time work, and develop women’s career pathways” (Scottish Government : 9).

In 2010, an Equality Act was put on the statute in Britain,
to require Ministers of the Crown and others when making strategic decisions about the exercise of their functions to have regard to the desirability of reducing socio-economic inequalities; to reform and harmonise equality law and restate the greater part of the enactments relating to discrimination and harassment related to certain personal characteristics; to enable certain employers to be required to publish information about the differences in pay between male and female employees; to prohibit victimisation in certain circumstances; to require the exercise of certain functions to be with regard to the need to eliminate discrimination and other prohibited conduct; to enable duties to be imposed in relation to the exercise of public procurement functions; to increase equality of opportunity; to amend the law relating to rights and responsibilities in family relationships; and for connected purposes.

48As equal opportunity measures converge to facilitate the work-life balance and to conform to European Union directives and initiatives in this area which, motivated by demographic decline thought to be a result of the increasing number of working women, became a priority at the beginning of the 21st century, will the trends in women’s underachievement in education finally turn round and appointments reflect their representativity in the field? It was predicted in 2000 that :

Radical changes in the educational success of young men and women mean that there is much less inequity in qualifications among young people than among older people. In the future women will be better qualified than men. Potentially this has enormous implications, not only for education in its own right, but also in access to good jobs. (Abercrombie and Ward: 216)

49By 2012 mixed results were to be seen. The industry's self-financed diversity watchdog, the Equality Challenge Unit, conducting audits and naming and shaming institutions where gender and race under-representation was significant, reported improvements, but continued disparity. Although nearly 54% of the staff in higher education were women, there had been "relatively little change in professional and support roles in relation to gender since 2003/04" (ECU, 2011). Similarly, the pay gap remained significant. In only 16 of 88 surveyed institutions did the pay gap tilt in favour of women at professorial level (UCU : 21). While, it was reported that women were now achieving professorship ranks more frequently, they still represented only one-fifth of all professors in higher education (up from 12% in 2001) (UCU, Appendix 1), and at another level, the number of women who wanted an academic career after their PhD remained low (Rice; Harrison). As Arnot and Phipps concluded in 2004, in the UK, "male dominance of academic capital is still  intact".

50 It was in higher education that women first made their mark, studying at university in the 1880s (but not being allowed to sit the degree examinations until the 1920s). It is particularly inappropriate but totally true to form that the elite institutions that were among the first to be breached were among the last to resist.

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1 The Economist, 21 July 2005, credits the Wall Street Journal with the coining of the term twenty years previously.

2  Margaret Hodge, Minister for Lifelong Learning and Higher Education, then for Children following Lady Hollis, Patricia Hewitt (Trade and Industry and Women 2001-2005, Health 2005-2007), Tessa Jowell (Public Health 1997-1999, Women’s Affairs 1998-2001, New Deal 1999-2001, Culture 2001-2007, London 2007-2008, Paymaster General), Baroness Jay (Leader of the House of Lords, Women 1998-2001), Harriet Harman (Social Security, Women 1997-1998, Sollicitor General 2001-2005, Leader of  House of Commons, Lord Privy Seal, 2007-) have held office in the successive Blair and Brown governments. Others have occupied posts outside the realm of ‘caring’ jobs in the successive Blair cabinets: Margaret Beckett (Trade and Industry), Ann Taylor (Leader of the House of Commons), Claire Short and Baroness Amos (International Development), Mo Mowlam (Northern Ireland), Hilary Armstrong (Treasury and Chief Whip), Dawn Primarola (Treasury). The Coalition government from 2010 received criticism for the lack of women ministers apart from Home Secretary Theresa May, and two less prominent positions at the Department of the Environment - Caroline Spelman - and the Welsh Office - Cheryl Gillan. The Conservative Party chair nevertheless went to a woman for the third time (Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May, and Baroness Warsi).

3  ‘GCSE results : Why are girls doing better ?’, BBC News,Talking Point, 27 August 2002, consulted on 1 July 2003.

4  ‘Addressing the gender gap’, BBC News, 22 August 2002, consulted on 1 July 2003.

5  NVQ equivalents : Level 1 Basis level education (GCSE Grades 4 and below)Youth Training certificates; Level 2: one GCE A level, 5 Grade a – c CGSE, RSA, City and Guilds, BTEC; Level 3: two or more GCE A level, 3 or more SCE Highers, Advanced RSA or City & Guilds, BTEC Nationals; Level 4: first degrees, HNC; Level 5: higher degrees.

6  ‘High-flying girls ‘hit glass ceiling’’, BBC News, 9 November 2002, consulted on 24 June 2003.

7  Equal Opportunities Commission News Release, 24 January 2002, consulted on 1 July 2003.

8  Russell Group : an association of 20 major research-intensive universities from Birmingham and Bristol, Oxford and Cambridge, to UCL and Warwick ; 1994 Group : eighteen internationally renowned, research-intensive universities from Bath to York, Post-92 : former Polytechnics.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1 : Pupils achieving five or more GCSE grades A*-C or equivalent, UK
Crédits Source: National Statistics Online 8 January 2004,​cci/​nugget.asp?id=434 consulted on 12 November  2005.
Fichier image/png, 4,0k
Titre Table 2:  Young people achieving two or more GCE A levels or equivalent, UK
Crédits Source: National Statistics Online, 8 January 2004,​cci/​nugget.asp?id=434 consulted on 12 November 2005.
Fichier image/png, 4,2k
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Susan Finding, « Gender, education and employment in education in Britain », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 14 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 24 juin 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/osb.1563

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Susan Finding

Professeur de civilisation britannique à l'Université de Poitiers

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