Tackling gender imbalance in colleges and universities – whose job is it anyway?

The Scottish Funding Council (SFC) held a workshop on 31 May 2016 to share the findings of research carried out by the Higher Education Academy which mapped the approaches being used to address gender imbalance in Scotland’s colleges and universities, to assess what approaches work best and why. The findings of the research are outlined in a report, Whose Job is it Anyway? Analysis of approaches to tackling gender imbalances at the subject level in Scotland’s colleges and universities.

The aim of the research was to:

  • Map initiatives in Scotland’s colleges and universities to tackle gender imbalances
  • Assess what approaches work best and why
  • Assess what approaches don’t work and understand what lessons can be learned
  • Recommend actions to achieve sustained improvements.

One of the key objectives in Ayrshire College’s 2014-17 Strategic Plan is to challenge gender stereotyping in career and learning choices. Significant efforts have been made on this priority for action over the past two years, and the work the College is doing to tackle gender imbalance in subject areas like care, engineering and computing was referenced extensively throughout the Higher Education Academy report.

At the workshop representatives from colleges, universities, NUS Scotland, Skills Development Scotland, Equate Scotland, the Equality Challenge Unit and the College Development Network heard presentations from Fiona Burns, Access Policy Lead at SFC and from the author of the research report, Dr Pauline Hanesworth from the Higher Education Academy.

Vice Principal Jackie Galbraith, a member of the SFC Gender Steering Group, took part in the workshop, along with Angela Alexander, Ayrshire College Student President and Jane Henderson, the College’s Developing the Young Workforce Manager.

In this article, Jackie outlines the challenges we are trying to address, summarises the conclusions of the report and describes the approach taken by Ayrshire College to tackling gender imbalance.


The context and the challenge

In June 2016, statistical publications from Skills Development Scotland (Modern Apprenticeship Statistics Full Year Report 2015/16) and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (Annual Statistics Report 2015) demonstrated that there is still much to do to address gender imbalance in Modern Apprenticeship frameworks, college courses and subject qualifications at school.

Scotland’s youth employment strategy, Developing the Young Workforce, has a KPI (key performance indicator) to reduce the number of Modern Apprenticeship frameworks with a 75:25 or worse gender balance to 60% of  frameworks by 2021. In 2015/16, 74% of MA frameworks had a gender balance of 75:25 or worse.

For colleges, one of the KPIs is to increase by five percentage points the minority gender share in each of the ten largest and most imbalanced subjects by 2021. These are long-term targets which rely on shifting deeply ingrained social and cultural factors. As an illustration of the challenge, look at female and male entries to Higher National Certificates/Diplomas in 2015.  The challenge continues at university and the following diagram, based on figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency published in February 2016, shows that the numbers of female graduates in areas like the physical sciences, computing and the built environment declined in 2015 compared to the previous year.


So, we have a problem. At a time when high quality, high value jobs abound in sectors like digital, the built environment and engineering, these industries persistently fail to attract women – despite considerable efforts by many employers and others to address this. Similarly, jobs growth in the early years sector is clear and the value of having more men in that sector is increasingly understood – yet the number of males continues to be low.

Enter the Scottish Funding Council’s gender action plan.

The SFC Gender Action Plan 

Fiona Burns outlined the ambitions set out in the Scottish Funding Council’s interim Gender Action Plan which was published in February 2016. By 2020, SFC is asking all colleges and universities to ensure that:

  • Actions to improve gender equality are mainstreamed
  • There are targeted approaches to tackling underrepresentation at a subject level
  • All widening participation initiatives will be focused on achieving more admissions from males and females.

By 2030, SFC is asking all colleges and universities to ensure that no subject has an extreme gender imbalance (75:25) and universities to reduce the gap between males and females in undergraduate study to five percentage points.

Fiona invited workshop participants to identify the key messages from the report that are of most useful in tackling gender imbalances, and what the SFC should do to enable the sectors to use the research to shape policy and practice. The outcomes from discussions on the day will inform the final version of the Gender Action Plan which is due to be published later in the summer.

Research findings

Dr Pauline Hanesworth presented the findings and recommendations of the research project, describing a framework of action. Seven themes for tackling gender imbalance effectively emerged in the research. These were:

  1. Strategic approaches – adopt a stronger strategic oversight that could maximise staff capacity and impact potential
  2. Mechanisms for success – capitalise on existing mechanisms
  3. Evidencing impact – develop understanding of what the results of tackling gender imbalances look like
  4. External enablers – connect to external activity
  5. Student involvement – support for the continuity and capacity of students as partners in tackling gender imbalances
  6. Cross-sector support – colleges and universities learning from each other’s specific experiences and expertise
  7. Subject focus – focus on all subject imbalances.

A framework for action, represented in the diagram below, was offered for consideration.


At the centre of the framework is a commitment to support subject choice and challenge gender stereotypes. Two foundations are required to support this commitment – institutional infrastructure and sector support.

1. Institutional infrastructure

  • Systems for strategic oversight and institutional commitment
  • Staff development and resource support
  • Mechanisms to develop and support effective relationships.

2. Sector support

  • Mechanisms for collaborative partnership working
  • Capacity and finance
  • Further research and resources.

Supporting these foundations are four areas of focus:

  1. Influencing the influencers
  2. Raising awareness and impacting on aspirations
  3. Encouraging applications
  4. Supporting student success

Finally, a number of enablers in the outer circle of the framework diagram were identified to ensure successful application of the model.

The main recommendations in the report are that colleges and universities should:

1. Develop institutional commitment to tackle student gender participation imbalances

2. Develop the capacity and motivation of all staff to tackle student gender participation imbalances

3. Adopt a theory of change methodology for the development of approaches

4. Develop holistic and longitudinal approaches that support young people throughout their educational choice process

5. Adopt a multi-pronged approach that combines the four areas of focus described above

6. Support student involvement in approaches through the development of student-led, student/staff co-created and student-delivered initiatives

7. Work in collaboration with other institutions and in partnership with other sectors

In addition, national sector agencies are encouraged to:

8. Develop a national campaign and strategy for tackling of gender inequality

9. Create a virtual and physical hub of and for practitioners tackling student gender participation imbalances

10. Broaden the remits of sector agencies and organisations to support the gender equality work of colleges and universities


The Ayrshire College approach

So, whose job is it to tackle gender imbalance in college and university courses? The Higher Education Academy report reached the conclusion that it is all of our jobs.

We agree, and well before this research was conducted we were already making progress on the recommendations subsequently outlined for colleges. Tackling inequalities underpins all of the College’s strategic documents including our Outcome Agreement and our work to address gender imbalance in careers and learning choices takes many forms.

Sparking an interest in STEM at a young age is very important and the College does this in a range of ways, for example by supporting Primary Engineer in primary schools, by running CoderDojo coding clubs (including girls-only clubs) for young people from the age of 7 and by organising STEM workshops for female pupils in college campuses. This interest in STEM needs to be sustained throughout primary and secondary school and onto college, and influencing those who influence young people’s subject and career choices is vital. For example, at our recent annual employers’ dinner the theme was tackling gender stereotypes in careers.

Central to our approach to tackling gender imbalance is working with students and we support the Ayrshire College Student Association’s  #ThisAyrshireGirlCan campaign to encourage women to study for careers which are traditionally dominated by men in areas like engineering, technology and construction. In March 2016, in partnership with the College, the Student Association created a film to celebrate female STEM students.

Working in partnership with local, regional and national organisations is important in tackling gender imbalance and underpins the Ayrshire College approach. Supported with funding from Skills Development Scotland, we produced a video series #WhatIActuallyDo to tackle gender imbalance in STEM apprenticeships by raising awareness of what apprentices actually do in their jobs. The short films featured five female engineering apprentices working in Hyspec Engineering, GSK, Prestwick Aircraft Maintenance, Spirit Aerosystems and Woodward. As well as interviews with the apprentices on what motivated them to pursue their chosen career and short films showing a day in the life of the apprentice, there are interviews with their employers talking about the benefits of apprenticeships to their companies.

The young women in these short films offer positive role models for others. One of the apprentices featured in the video series, Abbie Robb, reached the final for the Interconnect Scotland STEM Student of the Year award – the only apprentice and college student to do so! On International Women’s Day this year, Abbie spoke about her experience as an apprentice aircraft engineer to an audience of over 100 primary and secondary school girls and female STEM students.

When young women embark on STEM courses, we want to ensure they get the best possible experience which builds their confidence in moving on after college in the sector of their choice. On Monday 13 June we launched Ayrshire Connects – a mentoring network for female STEM students across the College to connect to each other, to students in other colleges and universities, to employers and women in the industry sectors they aspire to enter, and to senior pupils in secondary schools across Ayrshire. We are looking forward to working with Equate Scotland to connect the Ayrshire network to Interconnect Scotland.

ayrshire connects

Throughout the year, the College takes every opportunity to promote women in STEM by organising events and social media campaigns, for example around Girls in ICT Day in April every year and Ada Lovelace Day in October. Look out for new stories on our blog leading up to National Women in Engineering Day (#NWED16) on 23 June.

And, it’s not just about supporting women in male-dominated areas – we also have sustained activity to encourage boys and men into female-dominated sectors like care through our #ThisManCares campaign.

Follow us on social media to find out more about how we are tackling gender imbalance or get in touch with me at jackie.galbraith@ayrshire.ac.uk – we would love to hear from you.


Want to know more? Click on the links below

Whose Job is it Anyway? Higher Education Academy report

SFC Interim Gender Action Plan

Alison Malcolm, SFC Policy Officer – blog post on the SFC Gender Action Plan

#ThisManCares – Ayrshire College campaign to attract men into courses and careers in care

#ThisAyrshireGirlCan – Ayrshire College Student Association campaign to promote women in STEM

#WhatIActuallyDo – Ayrshire College video campaign highlighting female apprentices in science and engineering

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