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Women’s work


Karen O’Brien reflects on universities’ progress towards gender equality

“No country can ever truly flourish if it stifles the potential of its women and deprives itself of the contributions of half of its citizens.” Those are the oft-quoted words of former US first lady Michelle Obama. She made the remark during a passionate speech at the 2014 summit of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders on improving access to education for African girls and women. Her words left listeners in no doubt about the important contribution women can make to the world—if they are allowed.

The current struggles of women in Afghanistan and Iran highlight the ongoing battle that women are still fighting across the world to be respected and educated as equals to their male counterparts.

While we have made great strides in combating sexism and gender inequality, we should remember that it was not so long ago that UK employers could legally choose to hire men over women on no basis other than gender bias. The introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 helped protect women against this, but it took far longer for attitudes towards women in the workplace to truly change. We have only to look at the latest statistics of people in power at top FTSE companies to see that there is still much work to do.

In 2022, it was revealed that 97 per cent of chief executives at FTSE 250 firms were men, leading to the headline-grabbing quote that there are more chief executives named John than female chief executives. This fact, along with the gender pay gap, is illustrative of the inequality that still exists between the sexes even in advanced economies.

High achievers

The role that universities play in enabling women to reach their full potential is extensive. From Nobel Peace Prize winners such as Malala Yousafzai to the government’s new chief scientific adviser Angela McLean and former UK Supreme Court president Brenda Hale, higher education has helped an inestimable number of remarkable women achieve great things in the UK and elsewhere in the world.

When we officially install former US presidential adviser Fiona Hill as Durham University’s chancellor this summer, it will be the first time since women were first admitted to Durham in 1881 that both the chancellor and vice-chancellor positions are occupied by women.

We are here thanks in no small part to all the pioneering women who have come before us. From Durham’s first trio of female graduates in 1898, whose memory was recently honoured with the installation of a blue plaque at their college, through to Durham’s first female lecturer in 1914, we have a proud history of supporting strong women to challenge the status quo.

Historical precedent

Today in the UK, 43 per cent of 18-year-old women, compared with 32 per cent of men of the same age, are admitted to university. But while a number of UK universities have, in recent years, celebrated anniversaries of the first admission of women into higher education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, institutional support for women’s careers as researchers has made slower progress.

This is despite the fact that women’s achievement in scholarship and science has a long history and has long been recognised. In Europe, the idea of the learned woman, equally capable of generating new knowledge as her male counterparts, is an old one, dating back to the Renaissance. Take Marie de Gournay, classical scholar and editor of Montaigne, or Anne Conway, philosopher of science.

The Scientific Revolution of the 17th century lent weight to the argument that intellect has “no sex” and that rational enquiry is the duty of all; in the mid-18th century, the University of Bologna even appointed physicist Laura Bassi as a professor.

Yet despite this tradition, university environments for women’s research did not evolve at equal pace with women’s access to university education. Rosalind Franklin’s experience at King’s College London is one notorious example of the barriers to full recognition faced by a world-class female scientist.


The barriers, and the work to remove them, persist. The current focus of UK Research and Innovation on developing a healthy and inclusive research culture is a much-needed contribution to unlocking the full potential of women’s research.

Barriers are partly financial, related to the different positions that women occupy within university structures, roles and disciplines. The average mean gender pay gap in Russell Group universities in 2021 was 18.8 per cent, higher than the UK’s average pay gap. Intersectional pay gaps, exposing the interplay between gender, ethnicity and pay outcomes, are still more concerning. 

Statistically, our higher-earning graduates are not sheltered from the gender pay gap either. A UK government report published in January on equality of outcomes in higher education in England revealed that male graduate average earnings are around 9 per cent higher than female earnings one year after graduation.

This gap grows substantially over their early careers and reaches 31 per cent 10 years after graduation. Again, the reasons are many and complex, including women entering traditionally lower-paid postgraduate professions such as nursing, but that does not mean it should be accepted that a woman’s work is worth less than a man’s.  

More to do

While women’s access to higher education has improved enormously in my lifetime, and while women who qualify with a degree are statistically more likely to earn more than those who do not continue into higher education, structural inequalities in the academic and non-academic workplace remain stubbornly hard to shift.

Universities have a key role to play as agents of change, as employers of the women at the frontiers of knowledge and as key vehicles—within their social sciences and humanities disciplines—for understanding, evidencing and proposing solutions to deep-seated inequalities. 

Universities have certainly come a long way since the 19th century: from their initial reluctance even to accept women through to helping educate some of the most influential and powerful women in the world.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a medical degree in the US, in the mid-1800s, and to register with the General Medical Council in the UK, is often quoted as saying that “if society will not admit of woman’s free development then society must be remodelled”. In universities, as in so many other spheres of life, that remodelling must continue.

Karen O’Brien is vice-chancellor of Durham University.