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] 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