What do staff at UoK think about gender equality in the workplace?

Results from the IWD and IMD surveys

The Athena SWAN team carried out surveys related to International Women’s Day (IWD) and International Men’s Day (IMD) that gave us some insights into how some of the staff team at Kent think about equality in the workplace. In total, 86 people answered the women’s day survey (March 2019) and 68 people the men’s survey (November 2018). Out of these 154 respondents, 7 identified as non-binary, preferred not to answer or preferred to use their own term.

Whilst the surveys targeted people within the binaries of ‘men’ and ‘women’, we are aware of and value the challenges faced by those not comfortable or adhering to these binaries. In many questions, the respondents answered similarly regardless of gender, however, in some cases there were discernible differences between male and female-identifying people’s responses.

The sample size of these surveys was too small to draw generalised conclusions about staff perceptions at the University of Kent, however the comments and responses do suggest to some dominant strands of thought that could be valuable to explore further.

IWD is fairly well-known, and across the UK many institutions place importance on this day and organise many events to raise awareness about inequalities that women face in the workplace. However, the male equivalent IMD is less known (only 15% of our respondents felt it was important). One thing that was evidently clear from the results of these surveys was that many women still feel treated unfairly at work, and that awareness of unfair or sexist treatment lies predominantly with those who experience them. Many also raised how gender inequality is only one of the intersectional inequalities that exist at the university, with race and class being prevalent as well.

“Senior management is overwhelmingly male, which does not reflect the overall demographic”

(male respondent)

Have you been troubled by gender-related things in the workplace?

A great majority of both men and women (approximately 70% each survey) stated that they ‘sometimes’ have felt troubled by the things they hear or see in the workplace relating to gender. From the IWD survey in particular, there were many written responses containing examples of sexist experiences that respondents had witnessed or experienced first-hand at Kent. For example, some mentioned an incident where a group of women talking were referred to by their male manager as a ‘mother’s meeting’, others talked about how they were often addressed as ‘girls’ in professional environments.

Some mentioned that male colleagues with less experience had been promoted over them or been paid more upon starting their positions.

A few comments raised issues with women in jobs graded 1-6 being treated as ‘secretaries’, met with condescending attitudes from more senior men, while one respondent stated “I see too many men in positions of power talking down to women”. From the IMD survey on this question, respondents stated that they feel there are inequalities due to women being ‘allowed’ more freedom in childcare than men.

“Culture of sexism – very subtle – but lots of assumptions and judgments made about women and their suitability (or not) for leadership roles that are underpinned by troubling sexism/misogyny”

(female respondent)

Do you think opportunities and benefits are equally available to men and women?

This question divided opinion. 62% of men answered yes, whereas women’s opinions were equally distributed between ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘don’t know’. In the written comments, men highlighted that they have seen jobs advertised that promote women applying for positions, which they have found discouraging to apply for.


Both men and women mentioned that there are disproportionately more men in senior leadership roles at the university,
which is problematic, that childcare is a major inhibitor for career progression and that this mostly falls on women.  However, some men also highlighted that parental policies often appear to target women, and thereby discourage men from staying home with their children.

Causes and solutions to the gender pay gap

Opinions between men and women were similar in regards to this question. Most raised childcare, flexible working and part-time work as responsible for the gender pay gap. However, some men stated that The University is a meritocracy and that gender equality is not really an issue anymore. A minority of comments from men also raised a concern with the university being a “pro women culture” and that the gender pay gap is a myth, showing a misunderstanding between the gender pay gap and equal pay for equal work (For information about the gender pay gap, see https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/advice-and-guidance/what-difference-between-gender-pay-gap-and-equal-pay). 

Through the comments, an array of issues were raised that allow inequalities to perpetuate in the University culture. These are some examples:

  • Childcare falling on women more often than men
  • Part-time work preventing possibilities for senior positions and unconscious bias in recruitment and promotions
  • Lack of flexible working options for professional services staff
  • Lack of defined career path for PS staff (who are mostly women)
  • Women lacking confidence and being cautious in applying for promotions
  • Lack of female role models
  • Overrepresentation of male stereotypes in leadership positions
  • Women have less mentoring and support compared to the ‘old boy’ network

Some also mentioned that the issues prevalent all stem from a patriarchal society as well as historical inequalities in the education system and management in HE institutions.

Possible solutions to the gender pay gap that the survey respondents suggested included particularly empowering young women and showing suitable role models in leadership roles, assigning mentors and have more transparency in regards to salaries. It was also suggested that systematic attention to the achievements of male and female colleagues on comparable pay scales is needed. In regards to childcare as a barrier to career progression, it was suggested that more attention is needed on policies regarding childcare cover and the ability to work flexibly in order to manage childcare, school runs and nursery timings and also ensure that there are appropriate facilities and flexibility to manage breastfeeding.

Would you like to work more flexibly if allowed and would you be comfortable to ask for this?

Around half of respondents said that they would like to work more flexibly, and around a third stated that they already do. However a third of women and a quarter of men would not feel comfortable asking for flexible hours. Responses vary greatly between academic and professional services staff, and also between pay grades, which is highlighted in the comments.

PS staff have stated that their jobs tend to require 9-5 presence and that flexible working is mostly at the mercy of their line manager,

whereas academic staff feel they are at the mercy of the WAM and that even “part-time work” tends to require full-time hours, even if they have the possibility to work from home sometimes.

PS staff commented that the flexible working policy does not work and that requests are often denied. Many comments did also reflect that respondents were happy about their ability to have such flexibility in their work and commended Kent as an employer in this sense. 

Views on support available for carers at UoK

Men who answered this question tended to point out that support for men who have caring responsibilities in particular is very poor. Many have highlighted that support for parents appears to be aimed at women. Many who answered the question stated that they were not parents and so were not aware of what might be available. The short period of paternity leave available was mentioned, and also that many were unaware of what rights they might have as a father, and that such policies appear to be ‘invisible’.

Women who answered the same question also pointed out that there needs to be more visibility of fathers and to challenge the stereotype that women are the predominant carers/primary caregivers.

The issue of emergency childcare for when your child is sick was also mentioned frequently, as well as a pervasive view that support varies greatly between line managers. Additionally, some women raised that there might be support available for parents, but that less consideration is given to carers of elderly parents.

A few also mentioned the need for additional spaces for breastfeeding and milk pumping. A suggestion was to create a parent’s network. The ‘enhancement weeks’ were equally criticized by both men and women and many comments raised that this is an imposed change that was made without consideration for EDI implications.


How much do you know about Athena SWAN and how has it impacted on you?

Both men and women (around 43%) stated that they have ‘limited’ knowledge of the Athena SWAN gender equality charter, and approximately 25% stated that they had ‘good’ knowledge. 21% of female respondents answered that Athena SWAN had an impact on them, whereas for men this figure was 15%. Approximately half of all respondents did not feel that Athena SWAN had an impact on them, and many responded that they were not sure. Among the comments the predominant concern is that Athena SWAN is merely a tick box exercise that does not enable or create real culture change.

Some men stated that they did not feel it was relevant to them and that the charter appeared to be a mechanism for the positive discrimination for women, and some felt that Kent is a meritocracy and that therefore the issue is not relevant.

On the contrary some of the comments from women mentioned that they felt happy that feminism and Athena SWAN objectives are elevated as important issues and that events are organised and awareness is raised due to the charter.

Importantly, many comments in both surveys also mentioned that what needs to be high on the agenda for Athena SWAN and for the university is not just gender equality, but also intersectionality. In particular inequalities stemming from race, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, class and generally socio-economic backgrounds, which many perceived to be of more or equal importance to gender. Many were pleased to see a survey regarding Athena SWAN, but comments also revealed that there is great ambivalence in regards to whether real action and necessary cultural change will result from the work carried out in this area.

Balancing Parenthood and Working at a University

For International Women’s Day this year, the Athena SWAN team hosted a lunchtime event focussed on experiences of being a parent at Kent.  This included a roundtable discussion with staff who are parents and work at Kent, including VC Karen Cox, as well as a display of entries to a ‘paint your parent at work’ competition.

Through a survey completed last year, we found that some parents working at Kent felt that they had to hide that they had children, because they were concerned that they would be perceived as ‘soft’ or ‘not career focussed’. We wanted to find a way of challenging this presumption by both highlighting that there are many proud parents working at the university, and by showcasing role models of parents who have productive and successful careers.


The Kids’ Competition

We had a fantastic array of artwork submitted by children of university staff members, which we displayed at the lunchtime event, and that were up for public vote on the day. The overall winner was Alison Edward’s (School of Pharmacy) daughter’s submission of her mum doing ‘flossing’ in front of her students in a lecture in order to get their attention!





On Guilt, Taboos and being ‘Soft’

The panel, chaired by Professor Sarah Vickerstaff (University Athena SWAN lead), consisted of VC Karen Cox and Rob Twyman (SSPSSR), Minna Janhonen (Athena SWAN), and Alison Edwards (Pharmacy), who discussed a range of questions relating to parenting in academia.  Why is being a parent perceived as ‘soft’? Is it more taboo to be “out” at work as a dad, than as a mum? Why do we as parents feel riddled with guilt? And how does having a child affect people who are not parents, who may have to ‘pick up the slack’ from those who are?

Becoming a parent for the first time inevitably brings with it challenges, and particularly at work there are multiple layers of bureaucracy to sift through; parental leave arrangements, cover for teaching, maternity/paternity/partner cover, finances, ‘keep in touch’ days and applying for nursery placements (before the baby is even born) and so on. Minna, who is a part of the Athena SWAN team, and currently pregnant, explained that her experience so far has been that policies are not always clear and straightforward and there is a lot of maths involved in figuring out parental leave. Karen discussed how she had felt a lot of guilt when she first became a parent because she was focussed on her career and she was often the last parent to pick up her children from nursery. She had a daughter whilst she was doing a PhD and another child when she became Head of School. Karen reflected that working hard and having a career is what makes her happy, and she is pleased with her choices and have realised that “if you’re happy at work, then your child will be happy too”. Allison mentioned that working out the balance between work and parenting is indeed challenging, and it will inevitably affect your career; if you have children at least 30 hours of your week will be taken up by childcare. In addition, the guilt of being a parent is not only linked to not seeing your children, but also to somehow letting your colleagues down when you have ad hoc childcare commitments, cannot attend meetings or have to request timetabling constraints due to school/nursery collections. Rob also raised how there is an underlying assumption that parental responsibility lies with mothers, and that being a dad in academia is more taboo and not discussed as much, which renders fathers invisible.

“I just don’t want to be a problem”

Society puts an ever-growing demand on people to be present at all times, whether in person or digitally and a lot of people who work part-time feel that they either do not get taken seriously as professionals/academics, or they end up working full-time hours despite being on reduced contracts. For professional services staff taking time off for childcare can be even more challenging, as these roles include less flexibility. Returning to work following parental leave can entail quite a turmoil, both emotionally and practically, and many people work themselves to the ground in order to not lose face, or as an audience member said, they ‘just don’t want to be a problem’. The panel and audience discussed that the culture in academia is that “you just get on with it” and that the perception is that “serious academics work full-time”. Contrary to this, Sarah mentioned that she worked part time when she returned to work, and both Sarah and Alison mentioned that they had promotions whilst on parental leave.

The panel continued to discuss how they have overcome obstacles to have productive and successful careers in academia as parents, noting that support from your colleagues and from other parents is very important. It is a constant balancing act between priorities, as a member of the audience put it:  “It’s about working out the balance of when you go to assembly at your child’s school and when you prioritise your work”.


International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day 2019

University of Kent welcomes all staff to International Women’s Day celebrations on the 8th of March between 12pm and 2pm in Grimond Lecture Theatre 3.

The national theme for International Women’s Day this year is ‘Balance for Better’. Our approach to this theme is to look at balancing work and life as a parent. We will also recognise the importance of finding a balance amongst staff members with and without caring responsibilities.


Agenda of the day:

  • Welcome
  • Opening words: Karen Cox
  • Q&A Panel (selection of our PS and Academic staff)
  • Wrap-up
  • Lunch and Networking

This event is free to attend, however, for catering purposes we need you to book on to the event.

Book your space here!

Is the University of Kent a Meritocracy?


Is the University of Kent a meritocracy?

As a university, we have the same gender (in-) equality issues as other UK Higher Education (HE) institutions. The overall UK workforce in HE consists of 54% women, but only 20% of Vice Chancellors are women[1]. At the University of Kent, we have a gender pay gap where women earn averagely 17.5% less than men do[2]. This is not because women are paid less for equivalent positions, but because women are not occupying many of the senior positions at the university. For example, only 13% of Heads of School and Deans at the University of Kent are women[3].

When we hire new staff, or consider promotion opportunities for existing staff, are we fair in the way that we allocate senior positions? I often hear people say, ‘we hire only on merit, we are a meritocracy, which means we choose only the very best people for the job.’ And of course, why should we believe anything different? Our peers, colleagues, mentors and superiors believe in our skills and abilities and want the most suitable person to do the job, regardless of their gender. Yet, somewhere along the line, we are still promoting fewer women into senior roles, and we know that it is not because there are less skilful women available. The problem itself could be a general belief that we are a meritocracy, which corresponds with the assumption that because most of us believe in equality and equal opportunities, there are no further issues to tackle in this area. If there is no problem to fix, then why put efforts into fixing it.

Figure 1: Data from UoK Gender Pay Gap report showing mean and median pay gap and sample size.


The gender pay gap is sometimes confused with equal pay. It is illegal to pay anyone less or more due to their gender (or any other protected characteristic such as for example race, sexuality or disability). The gender pay gap refers to where men earn more because they occupy more senior positions than women do, which is generally the case across most sectors. Many invisible barriers prevent women from progressing in HE, such as for example, the gendered construction of leadership and accumulated disadvantages throughout their careers. Universities are traditionally male-dominated cultures, and when we do recruitment this inherent culture may unconsciously influence decision-making[4].

Sexism and #MeToo happens in academia as much as anywhere else, but arguably in an intellectual environment it is more hidden and there is an expectation that it does not exist, which renders it invisible[5]. As an undergraduate student at Kent, my (male) lecturer commented on my clothes every time I walked through the door. He did not do this to any male students. I did not raise this as an issue, I carried on as usual, because I did not expect sexism at university and I brushed it off. Small acts of everyday sexism build up over time and create a culture where it becomes normalised, mundane, commonplace, and taken-for-granted.

How do we tackle something that is invisible and hidden? How can we ensure that everyone gets an equal opportunity at a career at university? Even those of us who consider ourselves proponents of equal opportunities have an unconscious bias when we recruit or promote staff. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I don’t have any biases, I only care about people’s qualifications and who the best candidate is!’ you say? As people, we have a tendency to select applicants like ourselves that are familiar to us (referred to as ‘homo-sociability’). We have unconscious ideals about what a stereotypical leader should be and this means that we ‘clone’ and reproduce similar leaders, and often these are male[6]. One way of counteracting this is ‘positive action’, set out in the Equality Act (2010, sect 159) as a way of allowing employers to give preference to candidates from underrepresented groups if two candidates are as qualified as each other. Many argue that positive action is just another way of creating inequalities in favour of women instead of men, making it reverse discrimination.

At a university event organised by the Student Success Project, inspirational speaker and poet Lemn Sissay discussed positive discrimination, and posed the question of why some people are against the use of this in recruitment. He urged the audience to look at the paintings of professors at universities, proudly displayed in the corridors, all of them white men, and he said, “Positive discrimination has worked really well for one group of people”. So why does it appear that this group of people do not believe in positive discrimination, and why do they insist that we are a meritocracy, when they have benefitted the most from it historically? If meritocracy were anything other than a myth, would not our university be a site of diversity and equality? And with this in mind, how does one change institutional culture?

In the UK, we have a set of legislations that protect people from discrimination and generally, most people would proclaim that they believe in equality and fairness for all. Things have changed and progressed, but this does not mean that we can sit back, relax, and consider the problem ‘fixed’, or that Equality and Diversity activities are merely tick box exercises. If the University of Kent was truly a meritocracy, that would mean that women and people of colour would occupy many more of the senior roles at the university. If we recognise that inequalities exist and are a problem and we continue to discuss, problematise and examine them, we are already on our way to real change.

[1] Manfredi, S. (2017) Increasing Gender Diversity in Senior Roles in HE: who is afraid of positive action? Administrative Sciences 7(2)

[2] University of Kent ‘Gender Pay Gap Report’ 2017

[3] Data collected by Athena SWAN team for Q4 of 2018

[4] Manfredi, S. (2017) Increasing Gender Diversity in Senior Roles in HE: who is afraid of positive action? Administrative Sciences 7(2)

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2018/jul/27/are-universities-finally-moving-towards-their-metoo-moment Accessed 01/02/2019

[6] Shepherd, S. (2017) “Why are there so few female leaders in higher education: A case of structure or agency?” Management in Education 31 (2): 82-87