Gender bias in higher education is a threat to us all

Opinion: We need to harness all talents to counter existential threats

Stereotypes and gender bias persist in higher education globally. Drawing on data from 900 higher education institutions in 80 countries, involving more than 25 subjects, the global U-Multirank monitor, published recently, shows how the courses chosen in higher education and the gender profile of those in senior positions reflect gender stereotypes.

Engineering, computer science and physics remain male-dominated globally while nursing, education and social work remain female-dominated. This reflects stereotypical ideas that men are “naturally” good with things and process, whereas women are “naturally” good with people.

However, the monitor contains much data that demonstrates that these stereotypes are neither universal nor immutable.

For instance, a number of subjects are gender-balanced globally, in the sense that 40 per cent of both students and their staff are women/men. These include areas that traditionally have been male-dominated, such as agriculture, history and economics. So, stereotypes can be challenged and modified.


Even in gender-stereotypical areas, variation occurs between institutions, underlining the fact that these patterns do not reflect “natural” differences. Thus, for example, the gender profile in industrial engineering varies between institutions, implicitly suggesting the importance of organisational leadership and culture.

In many disciplines, different patterns emerge at the student and staff level – again implicitly undermining simplistic biological explanations. In chemistry for example, while the majority of students and graduates on undergraduate and masters’ programmes globally are women, in the vast majority of chemistry departments the proportion of academic staff who are women is much lower than the proportion of female students.

The data shows that where women are a large majority of the students (such as in health-related disciplines), women are still under-represented as one goes up the academic ladder. Thus, in nursing, women make up over 80 per cent of the undergraduate and masters students, but a lower proportion of PhD students and of junior academics and an even lower proportion of professors. This outcome is clearly not due to the absence of a pipeline of competent women.

A finding worth special attention is that the gender gap in academic staff is largest at research-intensive universities

A global stereotype that transcends the disciplinary stereotypes and which involves the cultural devaluation of women still persists. Thus, globally, women make up more than half of the students on undergraduate and masters programmes, 48 per cent of PhD students; 44 per cent of academic staff, but only 28 per cent of professors. This position was reflected in Ireland in a report published by the Higher Education Authority in 2016 (National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions).

Largest gap

A finding worth special attention is that the gender gap in academic staff is largest at research-intensive universities, which tend to be the most prestigious and ranked most highly on global rankings. Women make up only 23 per cent of the professors there, as compared with 38 per cent in institutions with low research expenditure.

The pattern is repeated in prestigious institutions majoring in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), where women make up an even smaller proportion of those in senior academic positions – 21 per cent of professors as compared with 29 per cent in other institutions. The EU and the OECD have seen these patterns as limiting research, innovation and economic growth.

Implicit in the stereotyping of subject areas is a differential evaluation of male-dominated and female-dominated careers, with consequences for pay and working conditions. Thus, male-dominated careers (such as information technology) continue to be seen as more important to the national success than predominantly female areas (such as nursing and midwifery). Can we really accept that valuation in a global pandemic?

The position in Ireland broadly reflects the global data. But there have been some recent improvements. The proportion of women at full professorial level in the traditional universities has risen from 18 per cent in 2012 to 27 per cent in 2020. The increase in women who head these universities is also both very recent and very welcome – from zero to three out of seven.

Knowing and acknowledging the true scale and nature of the issue is an essential step to action

Does all this matter? It matters because in a world facing several existential threats, we need to harness all the talents available, regardless of gender.

What can we do about so pervasive a culture? In an Irish context, we have programmes aimed at encouraging more girls to engage with Stem and programmes aimed at increasing the number of women at professor level. These are worthwhile initiatives. But clearly more is needed.

Knowing and acknowledging the true scale and nature of the issue is an essential step to action. This U-Multirank data is another valuable contribution to our knowledge and understanding of stereotyping and bias, conscious and otherwise, that constitute a threat to humanity in our social and cultural development. As with climate change, we can’t tell future generations we didn’t know.