Gender equality in higher education: a view from a social scientist

By: Dr. Charikleia Tzanakou, The University of Warwick

I am a social sciences researcher, interested in gender and academic careers in different disciplinary, institutional and national contexts. Since my PhD, I have been fascinated asking PhD graduates for their career stories especially in subject areas such as engineering, chemistry, mathematics, physics. Social science researchers can play a great role in improving understanding of the under-representation of women in academia and beyond. Lately, my research has focused on gender equality in the academic environment and these are my thoughts for gender equality in areas such as High Performance Computing (HPC).

Gender equality is a complex phenomenon that requires a continuous and holistic approach to addressing issues such as stereotypes and gender schemas, absence of role models and mentors, tokenism, gendered organizations (with gendered structures, assumptions and norms). In the academic and research world, the under-representation of women persists especially across specific subject areas and senior positions. According to SHE Figures, in 2011, women in the EU accounted for only 33 % of researchers (EU-28) and in 2013 women comprised only 21 % of the top-level researchers (grade A), showing very limited progress compared to 2010 (20 %) (SHE Figures, 2015).

In the UK, the majority of all professors are men (78%) across all areas (ECU,2015), reaching even higher levels when we look at the proportion of male professors working in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) subject areas (82%) (ECU, 2015). Women comprise only 14% (580) of staff in electrical, electronic and computer engineering and 22% (1465) of all academic staff in those academic subject areas.

In terms of student data, the under-representation of female students in the UK is also stark. According to ECU Report (2015), male students comprised the large majority of first year students studying engineering and technology (84%) and computer science (83%). Interestingly, the share of women gets better when it comes to postgraduate research as can be seen in the graph below (ECU, 2015) reaching almost 25% (1 in 4 women) in computer science and engineering and technology which holds promise for the future.

This segregation of women in specific subject areas is often attributed to low interest among female students at young age towards computer science and other ‘technical disciplines’ highlighting thus the importance of early intervention efforts aimed at enhancing the attractiveness of such subjects. In US, Maria Klawe and colleagues provide an overview of initiatives undertaken in US for early interventions but also for recruitment and retention of women later in their careers. Among their early interventions are exposure to positive role models in technology; challenging stereotypes about computing as a male profession; providing information about unconscious bias to parents and teachers and potential assumptions of girls ‘preferences and skills’ and how these can play a catalytic role in encouraging or deterring girls from pursuit of computer related activities (see for more). The impact of the work undertaken by Maria Klawe is reflected in the inspiring case of Harvey Mud College where more women than men graduated with a degree in computer science in 2016.

Academics in US and UK and also in the recent European Gender Summit have made suggestions to attract girls into high end computing and engineering subjects by enhancing the visibility of the social impact of technology (see e.g. Tilberg et al, 2005). It is increasingly proposed to broaden the scope of the subject areas and show ways where such subjects can be linked to societal issues such as health, better cities, etc. High Performance Computing is an interdisciplinary area of study related to computing infrastructure, development and application of super computers. It requires good background knowledge of Mathematics, Engineering and Computer Science, with expert knowledge in the area of application whether that is Physics, Chemistry, Economics, Social Sciences.

As always, every good idea has its potential pitfalls. While this type of publicity approach can contribute to creating a critical mass of women researchers and potential role models in those subjects, it could have unintended consequences. For example, it might reinforce stereotypes about ‘preferences’ and ‘choices’ of women towards specific subject specialties, which are considered to be more attractive to women. Thus such a campaign might imply that we assume all women have similar intrinsic preferences that are independent of the social conditioning that boys and girls are exposed to since young age. To be truly effective we need to take the image and unconscious bias rhetoric back into the first Christmas present: we need to change the way that we assume that machines, cars and computers are for boys and encourage within our families, our pre-schools, our schools and our societies that subjects and preferences are not gendered. We should challenge ourselves to address marginalization of girls who want to pursue subjects such as automotive engineering. I am using this example because I recently interviewed a recent graduate in automotive engineering who reported how she was not supported in her choices in her school and family environment :

“I went to an all-girls school and I wanted to do automotive engineering, I didn’t have a lot of support from that, through the school and from my friendship group as well, my school wanted me to do something like law or medicine and if I had to do engineering, I should have done something more feminine like civil engineering, apparently, that’s more feminine than automotive engineering […] I had a selection of people tell me these things, my teachers, my parents, my grandparents, my friends.”

Bringing this back to the computing context, one could ask whether specific computing applications are becoming increasingly gendered (such as health, biology and education) without challenging the perception that high performance computing is ‘a man’s world’.

Gender equality is a societal issue and social scientists can contribute to better understanding of the impact of interventions in social environments. I have a colleague who often says ‘we can’t really tell whether it is nature or nurture on the data we have, but there is clearly a lot of nurture’ so that is what we can address. There have been efforts to address the under-representation of women in UK higher education institutions since 2005. Institutions and university departments in the UK submit applications with actions plans for getting an Athena SWAN award which will provide evidence of undertaking efforts to address inequality issues. We have found that the Athena SWAN initiative has been a useful tool for analysing data and addressing the more obvious issues in many departments. However, this work and the resulting interventions in SET environments are often led by academics who are committed to equality and diversity but are also immersed in their departmental and disciplinary culture and have a ‘day job’ of delivering teaching and research. They are very knowledgeable about the technical context in which they operate but they are usually under pressure (and sometimes without reward or even recognition of their workload) to ensure that they ‘tick the box’ and get an award. However, the Athena SWAN award is and should be a starting point for a culture change in HEIs, not just different data in a table. Such change does not happen overnight and takes more than just the goal of an Athena SWAN award. What seems to be underestimated in this process and could contribute towards the goal of culture change is how working with social scientists could speed up culture change by helping to analyse underlying causes of lack of equality in research environments.


Klawe, M., Whitney, T., & Simard, C. (2009). Women in computing-Take 2. Communications of the ACM, 52(2), 68-76.

Klawe, M. (2002). Girls, boys, and computers. ACM SIGCSE Bulletin, 34(2), 16-17.

Klawe, M. (2011). Increasing the participation of females in computing careers. Journal of Computing Sciences in Colleges, 27(1), 98-100.)

Tillberg, H.K. and McGrath Cohoon, J. Attracting women to the CS major. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 26, 1 (2005), 126–140)