On international Women’s day I was delighted to be asked to present at HEFI’s celebratory event with the theme of ‘Choose to Challenge’ (slides are at available). Challenge what? My focus was to challenge the gender equality that ‘prevails in academia’ characterised by pay-gaps, lack of progression of women in to senior roles, a disproportionate representation of women in administrative roles, and metrics related to promotion that privilege men (Westoby et al., 2021). Men make-up 76% of the professoriate despite being 55% of the academic staff (HESA 2017 cited in Savigny, 2019). In the United States the picture is similar, with just one third of professor being female (Cardel et al., 2020). The experience of many female academics features high stress levels due to the unequal distribution of unpaid labour (Criado-Perez, 2019), and a struggle with the culture of self-promotion which is core to progression (Coate & Howson, 2016).

On a very personal level so much of what is written about women’s experiences of academia speaks to me. My journey to this point has sometimes included making a choice to challenge the status quo, sometimes with a significant personal cost. But not always. At times I have knowingly tolerated some of the cultures and structures that limit equality; it’s hard to challenge and sometimes easier to work around barriers rather than knock them down. I’m sure at times I have thoughtlessly and regrettably been part of the machine that limits others too. Now as I work with women at all career stages within and outside my institution, some disenfranchised by the culturally embedded obstacles that have stifled their ambition, and others with an unbounded optimism, I can see that it is more important than ever to shake off any inertia. Here’s the basis of what I shared to illustrate how we can choose to challenge:

Choose to learn

My first suggestion is that we (we = everyone, not exclusively women) commit to learning more about the issues of gender inequality. You can’t change and challenge what does not register. By reading, and listening to different perspectives on gender inequality it we can develop a radar for what is not OK. Experiences of everyday sexism, and cultural or structural disadvantage in the academy may not even be perceived as such without a more developed appreciation of the bigger picture, and a radar that picks up on equality dynamics. Texts such as ‘Invisible women; exposing data bias in a world designed for men’ and papers such as those cited, help me to deconstruct the everyday in a way that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Choosing to learn helps us to see and therefore address the inequality in the world around us.

Choose to notice

Equipped with some appreciation of how gender inequality plays out, there is a need to actively notice inequality within the routines of every day. When I said I may have propagated inequality, its most obviously through a lack of noticing.

While there may be policies and procedures to help with identifying gender issues, it’s not enough. We are more than forty-five years on from key equality legislation, and we still don’t have an equal HE system (in gender, and other terms). Noticing and immediately calling out inequality is essential. In the same way that Andy Murray instinctively corrected a journalist who talked about only men’s tennis achievements, erasing all mention of his female colleagues’, we need to notice. A recent example for me was when pulling together a group of pedagogic leads – I found myself with an all-female line-up. I immediately noticed this and challenged why pedagogy was drawing a women-only cast. If we want to address the equality of research and teaching career tracks, this isn’t OK.  It’s only when we notice, we can act to rectify and challenge.

Choose to share

A key part of choosing to challenge is choosing to share and talk about experiences, to lay bare the difficulties that women have experienced in their careers so that decision makers and colleagues can also see what happens beneath the waterline of an institution. I am keen to say here, while this is mentioned in the context of international women’s day, I think there are many groups where such sharing is important. If struggles aren’t shared, then they can’t be seen.

I remember when one of my sons, aged about seven, was having a very difficult start to school. I’ll spare the detail for his sake, but it involved lots of contact between home and school. So keen was I not to appear flaky in my role, I went to work, and then regularly got ‘the call’ from school, and rather than say ‘I have some family issues, can I work flexibly’, I left my light on and my jacket on my chair, drove the fifty-mile trip to sort things out and returned back to carry on my day. I skulked about, exhausted, trying to be all things to all people, because no one around me had these things visibly going on I thought that having domestic distractions would hinder progression through my children’s early years. I worked regularly in to the small hours to cover up the time I was losing. I now regularly share the drama of raising my children alongside an academic career in hope that others can see that it’s OK to have both and no one should be forced to make an either/or choice or sacrifice their well-being.

I’ll also share the anxiety that has travelled through parts of my career. As a reflective person who needs time to process, pacey committees, panels or groups with competitive undertones have never suited me – I’d rather go away and research an issue that talk of the top of my head about something I am unclear of.  Is this a gender issue – I think so – it seems like an extension of the alpha culture described by participants in Coate & Howsen’s (2016) work. But to be clear, adjusting the style of academic committees and panels to be more inclusive would benefit more that ‘just’ women, it may also help new career academics who report the same fear, students who should routinely be involved in open and kind discussion, and men too who don’t thrive in the academic dual.

Choose to mentor (and value mentoring)

Mentoring is widely recognised as an important function to help academic career confidence and self-belief (Cardel et al., 2020; Petersen et al., 2020). Mentoring is a way of assisting others in a mutually beneficial relationship. It’s a way of giving back, while also gaining. I have benefited greatly from mentors. In my early twenties, I was given a team of experienced senior male teachers to lead; my success in this role was highly dependent on an amazing mentor, the late very brilliant Lesley McGuire. She stood behind me, encouraging me and helping my confidence, teaching me to manage and lead others, and pushing me to do things outside of my comfort zone.  Good mentors change careers. In a way of giving back, choose to mentor to empower and enable a new generation of women. Macfarlane & Burg (2019) highlight the need to recognise and reward the important work of mentoring too, so mentor-away, but if you have a position of influence consider writing the work of academic citizenship in to your promotional criteria, so that too is recognised as service.

Choose to advocate

Mentoring often refers to a deep connected relationship, which involved a sizable investment of self. Advocates also have a huge role to play in facilitating and celebrating the work of women though. They share, they reference, they cite, they actively foreground the work of others ahead of, or alongside their own. When the advocate has standing, of course this makes a huge difference. If you are in a position of power or leadership or if you have some standing within a discipline community (or wherever) – ask how can I advocate others for the good of change? Can I elevate the excellent work of female colleagues to help it be seen and rightly recognised? This may be as simple as a tweet, or a slide within a conference, a mention in a meeting or connecting people within networks to knowingly provide opportunities. It is a way of throwing down the ladder and enabling women to be better heard in debates. Professors Sally Brown and Kay Sambell, Danielle Hinton and Louise Rees are the ultimate advocates! Checking out their work will show clearly how they elevate the others in an incredibly selfless way. Choosing to advocate, not only helps others to foreground their work when they may not otherwise get the coverage, it also counters a culture of individualism and moves us further to kind cooperation.  

Choose to model

On the basis of the old adage, we can be what we can see, what should we be? What should we model? I’d argue that we should question, listen, seek evidence, and make sure others are heard. These behaviours help to challenge the status quo and model the behaviours that lead to a more inclusive community. Asking, of our own work ,and work that we encounter, who isn’t been heard as well as who is, and continually checking whether decisions are made for ‘all people’ (including but not exclusively women), are other tools of daily scrutiny.

Choose to reflect

Challenge isn’t going to happen by chance; we must choose to look, see, analyse, reflect and use data to test assumptions. Just like in the analysis of academic practice, the use of models, deliberate thought, journaling and sketch noting can crystallise thinking. All of the above can, I think, be trained and embedded in to practice through reflection. Perhaps reflecting on gender dynamics can and should be part of postgraduate teaching programmes.


The language, dynamics and habits ​of the everyday shape our collective experience. Choosing to learn, notice, share, mentor, advocate, model, reflect …​is a realistic way to choose challenge … and be the change. In itself, it’s nowhere near enough, but I hope it’s a start!

Cardel, M. I., Dhurandhar, E., Yarar-Fisher, C., Foster, M., Hidalgo, B., McClure, L. A., Pagoto, S., Brown, N., Pekmezi, D., Sharafeldin, N., Willig, A. L., & Angelini, C. (2020). Turning Chutes into Ladders for Women Faculty: A Review and Roadmap for Equity in Academia. Journal of Women’s Health, 29(5), 721–733. https://doi.org/10.1089/jwh.2019.8027

Coate, K., & Howson, C. K. (2016). Indicators of esteem: gender and prestige in academic work. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 37(4), 567–585. https://doi.org/10.1080/01425692.2014.955082

Criado-Perez, C. (2019). Invisible women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men . Chatto & Windus.

Macfarlane, B., & Burg, D. (2019). Women professors and the academic housework trap. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 41(3), 262–274. https://doi.org/10.1080/1360080X.2019.1589682

Petersen, S., Pearson, B. Z., & Moriarty, M. A. (2020). Amplifying Voices: Investigating a Cross-Institutional, Mutual Mentoring Program for URM Women in STEM. Innovative Higher Education, 45(4), 317–332. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10755-020-09506-w

Savigny, H. (2019). Cultural sexism and the UK Higher Education sector. Journal of Gender Studies, 28(6), 661–673. https://doi.org/10.1080/09589236.2019.1597689

Westoby, C., Dyson, J., Cowdell, F., Buescher, T., & Westoby, C. (2021). What are the barriers and facilitators to success for female academics in UK HEIs ? A narrative review What are the barriers and facilitators to success for female academics in UK HEIs ? A narrative review. Gender and Education, 0(0), 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2021.1884198

Here’s a link to the event slides