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Gender inequality is still baked in to the REF

Gender inequality is still baked in to the REF, argue Emily Yarrow and Julie Davies
This article is more than 4 years old

Emily Yarrow is Senior Lecturer in Management and Organisations at Newcastle University Business School.

Julie Davies is Deputy Director (EDI) and Director MBA Health at the Global Business School for Health at University College London

As many of us are very aware, REF2021 and the November 27th 2020 deadline is looming. How will women fare this time around?

There have been some important rule changes since REF2014, as well as the Stern Review in 2016. There is much pontification as to the effects of the changes, and how this will affect individual academics, institutions and indeed scholarship. Much of this remains unclear, and indeed somewhat under-researched.

But what we do know is that women continue to be not only underrepresented in the upper echelons of the academy, but also over represented in precarious positions and teaching roles across the sector.

In the REF, “Category A” eligible staff with “significant responsibility for research” are defined as:

Staff with significant responsibility for research are those for whom explicit time and resources are made available to engage actively in independent research, and that is an expectation of their job role”

There is no data currently available that provides insight into the (anecdotal) phenomenon of individuals who don’t have enough (or enough of the right) publications being moved onto teaching only, teaching fellow or other forms of contracts. But HESA data does tell us is that still only 26% of Professors are female across UK higher education, and women make up around 63% of non-academic staff, and 67% of part time staff in 2017/18.

Stern words

It is interesting to note that there has been little remonstration of the fact that UK funding councils can still submit the work of academics who have been made redundant, particularly when it is considered that it is disproportionately women who are precariously employed.

UK funding councils have decided to allow for the inclusion of individuals whom have been made redundant “because of the significant unintended consequences of doing otherwise” and whilst there are aspects that link to portability of research, overarchingly this is an unethical and unbecoming manoeuvre in a process which is already plagued by equality and diversity issues.

As an example, the aforementioned Stern Review (2016) – in which there were only three perfunctory references to gender – exemplifies the need for further and ongoing research into understanding the potential role of research evaluation on female academics’ careers. Not only would this improve gender equality in the academy, but it would also contribute to a more egalitarian academy, and indeed understandings of scholarly excellence that are not gendered.

What is clear is that there are gendered effects on academic careers that can be linked to the various facets of research evaluation, such as the impact agenda and impact case studies – where there is still a dearth of women impact case study leaders. The onus on impact is increasing over time, from a weighting of 20% to 25% of overall REF scores. This holds the potential to further deepen gender inequality issues in the sense that there is still a lack of support and recognition of women’s generation of, and leadership of impact.

What should we fix?

Big questions remain around improving gender equality – but what is clear is that it is the system that needs fixed, not the women. For research directors, heads of school and academics involved in final decision-making surrounding REF and last-minute REF strategy implementation, it is crucial to think not only about the short-term REF outcomes, but longer term diversity of scholarship.

Raising awareness of the gendered issues surrounding research evaluation is critical, but so also are ongoing networking events for women academics. The CYGNA network (from the female version of the Latin word for SWAN (SupportingWomen in Academia Network) is one example of a forum to promote interaction among female academics for learning, support, and networking. This is facilitated by Professor Anne-Wil Harzing in England, with a recent event on negotiating held at the LSE in January 2020 with multiple other events planned, including in Manchester this year.

Appropriate institutional and policy consideration should also be given to the effects of research evaluation and the gendered impact agenda on women academics and as we suggested in 2018, there need to be new opportunities created to capture and harness the contribution of women scholars in the contemporary academy.

Raising awareness of equity, diversity and inclusion in relation to the impact agenda, in terms of who is producing impact and for whose benefit is critical and imperative to the development of a more egalitarian and inclusive way of assessing research and its impact.

4 responses to “Gender inequality is still baked in to the REF

  1. I’m very sorry but I fail to grasp the focus of this article as the writing seems to me obscure in the extreme. Between the lines I read the authors believe there’s a male conspiracy to, somehow, keep female lecturers from being properly represented in REF. At the end of a forty years career in Higher Ed I can assure the authors that this belief is preposterous.

  2. Thank you for your comment. However, we do not argue that there is a conspiracy to prevent women academics (we’re not only lecturers, but also women are Professors, albeit under represented also). The arguments are not solely based on beliefs, but rather on empirical evidence which demonstrate systemic, engrained inequalities which contribute to women’s lived experiences of research evaluation, and higher education more broadly.

    May I guide you to the following for further reading:

    Best regards,


  3. Just out curiosity, if the argument made are based on “empirical evidence” which is interpreted from “lived experiences”, how is such an argument not simplify defeated by someone saying “no your wrong” [as the first comment implied, based on their own lived experience].

    Furthermore, there is also a certain a systemic, ingrained and unconscious nature of any [feminists?] attack on the status quo. Therefore, by merely invoking contemporary gender distribution, and make any claims that this “should” be reflected in the distribution of impact case studies makes two essentializing assumption. It assumes that the gender ratio in academia has been as it today [which it is not the case.] Similarly, it simplifies the long-term nature it takes for research impact [especially on large scale] to manifest.

    Thereby, firstly, any argument that aims to “improve gender equality”, has to do two things at a minimum. (A) it has to deconstruct their [own] implicit [value] assumptions that are made for the criticism, and not merely pointing out that the existing system has them, which manifest in any perceived notion of discrimination. Secondly, (B) any such axiological disputes cannot be resolved by merely pointing to empirical evidence, as that very empirical data can be interpreted in a multitude of different ways, depending upon which framework is used to interpret the data against.

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