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Is there a glass ceiling in Higher Education?


by Lizana Oberholzer  @LO_EduforAll

Women play a pivotal role as role models to inspire the future generation of female leaders in education, whether it is in schools or in Higher Education. According to Hewitt (2020) and Osho (2018), 56.6% of the university student body is comprised of women. The Higher Education workforce, however, reflects a different picture where 45.3% of the workforce are women, as outlined by the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s (HESA) data. What is interesting to note is that the representation of women in the leadership and management workforce is even lower at 27.5%.

Osho (2018) highlights that apart from the challenges of low female representation in leadership in higher education, there are also concerns regarding BAME female representation, and that 0.5% of UK female professors are Black.  It’s clear that these issues need urgent attention.

Women in HE often face similar challenges to their counterparts in schools. Hughes, as cited in Findings (2013), outlines that HE contexts and working conditions in HE contexts don’t often accommodate the needs of their female workforce, and they often suit men better. Women with young families often struggle to balance their commitments with family life. In addition, it is often perceived that when women go on maternity leave their academic career comes to an end or is on an indefinite pause. In some cases, some university departments, when faced with maternity leave, had to think how to support or accommodate the needs of young female academics for the first time, as they have never had a female colleague to support until very recently. Findings (2013) and Osho (2018) outline how initiatives such as Glass Ceiling and Athena Swan were introduced to shatter the glass ceiling, in the hope that when women are supported and championed they will also provide strong role models for others to follow, and future generations will be able to progress with ease onto the leadership ladder.

Although the data reflects that the workforce in Higher Education represents a larger percentage of female staff vs male staff in some HE contexts, as cited by Hewitt (2020) it cannot be ignored that at times, more needs to be done to support women in order for them to succeed as academics and in leadership positions in HE. Flexible working opportunities, not only to fulfil academic teaching roles, but research and leadership roles, need to be considered to enable women to lead and contribute in a sustainable way to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

The sentiments outlined by initiatives such as Glass Ceiling and Athena Swan are that young women in education need to see strong role models of female academics succeeding is key. ‘You cannot be what you cannot see’ (Rabinger as cited in Featherstone and Porritt, 2021).

To truly shatter the glass ceiling for women in Higher Education, recruitment practices, flexible working practices, as well as research practices need to be considered to ensure that women can fully engage at all levels in an equal way.

Athena Swan offers opportunities for mentoring to take place, and is a wonderful opportunity for women to work with their HE organisations to help others to grow and develop as well as WomenEd’s supportive community and MA in Leadership. However, these initiatives need to be taken further, and dedicated time is needed to do these opportunities justice. To truly shatter the glass ceiling, women’s invaluable roles and contributions in HE need to be recognised more often. It needs to be recognised that women and men can play a complementary and equal role to ensure that students succeed, and that communities are served well. However, the positives need to be recognised too. Steps that are taken to address this issue need to be celebrated, and further encouraged. Initiatives such as the Advance HE’s Aurora programme is a fantastic step forward to develop future female leaders in HE. Working as a committed community, where equality is championed for all, will ensure that women can fully contribute as academics, teaching staff, leaders and researchers.


Featherstone, K. and Porritt, V. (2021) Being 10% Braver, UK: Corwin

Findings, S. (2013), Gender, education and employment in education in Britain, Volume 14. 2013, p. 173 – 204, Available: Gender, education and employment in education in Britain (openedition.org) (Accessed: 01.03.2021)

HESA, (2020), Who’s working in HE?, UK: HESA. Available at: Who's working in HE? | HESA (Accessed: 01.03.2021)

Hewitt, R. (2020), Mind the gap: gender differences in higher education, UK: HEPI, Available at: Mind the gap: gender differences in higher education - HEPI (Accessed: 01.03.2021)

Osho, S. (2018), How far have women come in Higher Education?, UK: Advance HE. Available at: https://www.ecu.ac.uk/blogs/far-women-come-higher-education/ (Accessed: 01.03.2021)

Book details:  Being 10% Braver: Edited by: Keziah Featherstone - Headteacher and Strategic Leader, WomenEd and Vivienne Porritt - Strategic Leader, WomenEd

Reblogged with permission from: https://perspectivesblog.sagepub.com/blog/books/is-there-a-glass-ceiling-in-higher-education

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Sunday, 29 January 2023

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