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United Kingdom

The University and College Union (UCU) represents more than 120,000 academics; 56,616 is the recorded number of women. The number of women in the highest positions in academia is still very low. Beneath the obstacles faced by woman in British universities like the academic culture and the gender pay gap there is support available for women and initiatives promoting good practice.


Members of UCU are lecturers, trainers, instructors, researchers, managers, administrators, computer staff, librarians, and postgraduates in universities, colleges, prisons, adult education and training organisations across the UK. UCU is the largest post-school union in the world: a force working for educators and education that employers and the government cannot ignore.

It was formed on 1 June 2006 by the amalgamation of two strong partners - the Association of University Teachers (AUT) and NATFHE-the University & College Lecturers' Union - who shared a long history of defending and advancing educators' employment and professional interests.

The Position of Women in Higher Education in the UK

Although there have been marginal improvements in British Universities over the last ten years or so, progress is extremely slow, and there is still a very long way to go. The proportion of academics who are women has been steadily increasing overall, but the number in the highest positions is still very low, and the gender pay gap across the sector remains stubbornly high.

In the UK, there are considerable differences in all respects, including staff structure, between the “pre-92” and “post- 92” universities. 1992 was the year when the polytechnics were redesignated as universities. Roughly speaking, the pre-92 universities are more elite and traditional. One of the biggest divides in all universities is between those on permanent-full-time contracts, and those on part-time and/or fixed-term contracts. There is clearly a gender divide here and in the three types of employment function for UK academics – teaching-only, research-only, and teaching-and-research. The vast majority of teaching-only contracts are part-time. The majority of researchers are on fixed-term contracts. The contract regarded as the norm for full-time academics is teaching-and- research.

The first hurdle faced by many women in academia is getting on to a full-time permanent contract. The traditional male trajectory is to work full-time, strive to get as much published as possible, and be prepared to move anywhere in the country, or indeed even the world, to get promotion.

Initiatives promoting good practice

The Athena SWAN Charter is a scheme which recognises excellence in Science, Engineering and Technology (SET) employment in higher education. The Charter was launched in June 2005. Any university or research institution which is committed to the advancement and promotion of the careers of women in SET in higher education and research can apply for membership. Athena SWAN awards recognise and celebrate good practice on recruiting, retaining and promoting women in SET in higher education. Read more about the award and the way the University College London handles gender equality and the award at the department of chemical engineering.