This year’s International Women’s Day will be marked by demonstrations, festivities and other activities worldwide, highlighting the contribution of women to society as a whole but also denouncing the persistent inequalities that girls and women are still experiencing, even after decades of initiatives meant to address them. This year’s United Nations theme - “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change” - focuses on bold, transformative approaches to achieve gender equality by 2030 as proposed in goal five of the Sustainable Development Goals.

To transform the systems that hold women back, research and academic organisations have a key role to play as thought leaders. Firstly by inspiring future generations to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion, and secondly through developing innovative solutions for change that spread to other sectors. The dearth of women and minority groups at senior positions in academia is therefore a critical issue that points to major structural, social and cultural barriers to meritocratic advancement in institutions that should be leading the way.

Reflecting on these biases can be difficult for professions like science and medicine that are grounded in beliefs of their own objectivity and evidence-driven thinking. To highlight and tackle the persistent disadvantages faced by women working in science, medicine and global health institutions, The Lancet dedicated a special issue to this topic last month. The response has been eye-opening.

As a group of 10 women from diverse ethnic backgrounds working in university settings in Canada, Singapore, Spain, Thailand and the UK, we decided to work together to contribute to The Lancet’s special issue by producing a mixed methods analysis of gender and ethnicity-related differences in career progression at top-ranked academic institutions in the world.

This study was inspired by recent efforts in the UK to uncover gender inequalities through the ‘gender pay gap’ initiative, which mandates organisations with more than 250 employees to report the difference between the average earnings of men and women. The ‘gender pay gap’ initiative has generated political attention and has triggered debates on the need to address gender discrimination. We applied a similar approach to a set of institutions which are often considered thought leaders on equality and good governance: universities focusing on public health.

The results

The analysis focused on the 15 highest-ranked universities worldwide. We collected and analysed publicly available data on 8801 staff from ten US universities, four British universities and one Canadian university. We also analysed equality policies on gender and ethnicity and action plans in place at all 15 universities.

We found that in all the universities we analysed, the proportion of men and women was mostly equal across all academic positions. However, women were concentrated at junior positions and men at senior positions, with the representation of women declining between middle and senior academic levels, despite women outnumbering men at the junior level (senior 34% vs junior 56%).

About a third of men and women were from an ethnic minority. We identified that disparities were amplified for ethnic minority women. Ethnic minority academics constituted a small proportion of junior level positions (19%) and their representation declined along the seniority pathway (9%).

We also collected data on strategies and action plans intended to improve diversity. The analysis of the data suggests that most universities focused on less tangible goals such as raising awareness both of issues surrounding gender and equality, as well as awareness of the policies in place to address these issues. However, only a few reported having some strategic action plans focused on the recruitment, retention and development of diverse faculty with detailed goals. Furthermore, there was limited monitoring and evaluation of the stated activities to improve diversity.

How should institutions move forwards?

We also found that some universities that performed better on faculty gender equity did not perform so well on equity with respect to ethnicity. Therefore, we suggest that disparities should be targeted more broadly, extending beyond the targeting of gender-related disadvantages to include ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, age and class.

It is also clear from our results that gender and ethnicity intersected to produce a double disadvantage for ethnic minority women. We believe that additional support should be provided to ethnic minority women in the form of mentorship of junior staff by senior staff, leadership-training scholarships, and specific actions that offer equal opportunities.

Other recommendations that ought to be considered include sharing data on staff diversity in a standardised manner, and provide funding for enabling more research to be carried out to evaluate the effectiveness of various policies, action plans and strategies.

Overall, strategies or actions will only be useful if their impact can be assessed through regular and transparent monitoring processes and have a measurable impact. Tracking and publicly reporting gender on ethnicity statistics could therefore catalyse action to improve diversity. Benchmarks and rankings may also help to foster positive competition between universities.

We believe that real action on gender and ethnic diversity in senior academic positions may be accelerated when low staff diversity affects university rankings and funding. We therefore advocate for university rankings such as those produced by Times Higher Education, US News and the QS World University Rankings to consider academic staff diversity when scoring universities.

The Lancet’s collection of papers underlined that women in academia are underrepresented in positions of power and leadership. It also emphasized that gender equity in science is not only a matter of justice and rights; it is equally important in producing the best research.

Empowering women within our universities will not be easy. It will require addressing pervasive, systemic issues such as implicit bias, deep-rooted attitudes and unfair social and cultural norms. To achieve gender equality in our universities by 2030, we, academics have to ensure that everyone is involved and that both women and men have a role to play in making universities more diverse, equitable and inclusive institutions.