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Wonkhe 360: what’s it like to be a woman in higher education policy?

What's it like to be a woman working in higher education policy? Arthi Nachiappan interviewed women who wonk to explore the challenges still facing women in the sector.
This article is more than 5 years old

Arthi was an Editorial Assistant at Wonkhe.

A perennial issue for Wonkhe is that we find that while there is no shortage of women working in and thinking about higher education policy, we find that male voices tend to feature more strongly in the policy debate.

To explore this issue further we conducted follow-up interviews with some of the women who participated in the Wonkhe 360 survey of 212 policy wonks across the sector to find out what they considered to be issues facing women working in higher education policy at different levels and within different institutions.

Among respondents to the survey there was no significant difference between the extent to which women and men respondents to our survey expressed an aspiration to engage with, shape, or lead policy in their organisation or nationally.

Within the sector, women are much more likely to work in non-academic roles and are much more likely to work part-time, according to the most recent batch of HESA staff data covering 2017/18. Analysis published in 2018 by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) found that women earned less than their male counterparts across all ethnic groups, and that these gaps varied when isolating different ethnicities to look at pay differentials between men and women. Men were also found more likely to occupy managerial roles than women, with 6.5% of men recorded in such roles in 2017/18 compared with 4.7% of women.

A number of the women we spoke to noticed a lack of representation of women in the highest ranks of policy making in higher education institutions. They said that, as they progressed in their careers, they noticed fewer and fewer women among their peers. One female respondent working at a senior leadership level within an institution said that a lot of the issues facing women in policy come down to representation of women at a senior level:

“Not enough of us hold these senior roles. I don’t think there’s a case that at this stage there’s an issue where we’re listened to less, but it’s just a case of numbers.”

Power structures

Several women identified that institutional structures for decision-making can often exclude women. One female respondent working at a senior policy level commented:

“The structures in place are good but they are not often used for the actual decisions. The decisions that are actually made don’t happen in those forums. They happen in informal settings. And in the circumstances I am referring to – and I don’t know why – this tends to give men an advantage.”

This was echoed by a female policy wonk working at a middle management level:

“I wish policymakers were less secretive. The people making the decisions are trying to get things done but are not being very open or forthcoming as to why or how – and these power games often end up leaving women slightly on the outside.”

Both respondents suggested that using the formal structures that are in place to make these decisions would enable women to play a greater role in policymaking. Yet there is also evidence that women can encounter sexist attitudes and practices in formal decision-making bodies as well. A member of staff working at a senior policy level said:

“I would feel like I had to make a point of calling out – in a jokey way – times I had been interrupted in meetings, which earned me a slightly tongue-in-cheek reputation for being a feminist. I don’t think they’d ever experienced that kind of thing before.”


The experiences of our respondents also suggests that there is still some level of gender-based stereotypes when it comes to women working in particular disciplines. We heard this from women who had worked in roles within data and technology development, in particular. One respondent told us:

“There are still very few women working in technology development and related policy areas. That’s the part where, as a woman, I have felt isolated, not listened to and spoken down to. I’ve been prevented from contributing to policy as much as I might want.”

Policy as a whole

There are a few challenges that are specific to the structures and culture of higher education policy. One female respondent pointed out that higher education policy can be very London-centric. This can exacerbate issues for women with caring responsibilities, who are not as easily able to travel to network:

“Networking is really important in policy. Policy understanding partly comes through reading but partly from chatting and hearing different takes.”

To this point might be added the tendency of the higher education policy sector to conduct much of its networking activity outside of working hours so that anyone with caring responsibilities must choose between professional and family life.

Often, discussions surrounding how to tackle the issues facing women in the workplace revolve around the behaviours of the women themselves. One respondent who works in middle management at a pre-1992 institution said that solving the problem comes down to looking at the workplace as a whole:

“What we need to focus on is an approach that looks at all staff members, not just women. It’s important to help women to progress but part of how we do that is by encouraging men to take parental leave.”

Another respondent also made the point that, to address limitations for women working in the policy space, we need to look beyond the behaviours of the women themselves to the behaviour of those around them:

“There is always a question of whether you fix the structure or you fix the women. I think it’s important that women put themselves forward, but that needs to be received on an open plane and not seen as the women being ‘pushy’ for instance.”

Several women suggested that institutional culture plays an important role in the progress of women in the workplace, and this is shaped most by examples set by those in leadership positions:

“The environment is impacted a lot by those who are in leadership roles. The more openness there is to enlarging the pool of voices, the better.”

Download the full report as a PDF.

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