Return to gender:
a path well-travelled

Throughout the world we are frequently reminded of the great landmarks that educational establishments have made in the field of gender equality.

It is, however, a subject that is still scrutinised on a daily basis, and the question of whether we have banished institutional sexism in academia continues to echo in the corridors of all international colleges, universities and research establishments.

An ongoing battle

Our data suggests the battle for parity has not been won. Gender discrimination was cited as a key barrier to inclusivity, with North America (59%) and north and western Europe (56%) occupying the top two positions. Indeed, 49% of respondents saw it as a key obstacle to inclusivity, making it the third highest barrier. There is also a considerable male/female deficit when it comes to acknowledging gender discrimination as an issue – 20% more women think it is a key barrier compared to their male counterparts.

Insufficient progress on structural issues lies at the root of gender inequality – such as legal discrimination, inappropriate social attitudes, decision-making on sexual and reproductive grounds and low levels of political participation. Research – including a study by University College London – concludes women devote, on average, three times more hours a day to unpaid care and domestic work than men, limiting the time available for paid work, education and leisure, thereby further reinforcing gender-based socioeconomic disadvantages.

Almost 50% of respondents globally said gender discrimination was an issue in society.

According to United Nations Economic and Social Council Special Edition: progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals women also continue to be underrepresented at all levels of political leadership. As at 1 January 2019, women’s representation in global parliaments ranged from 0% to 61%, with the average standing at 24%, an increase from 19% in 2010. At local level, data from 99 countries and areas show that women’s representation in elected deliberative bodies varies from less than 1% to 48%, with the median of the distribution at 26%. When legislated gender quotas are adopted, significantly higher proportions of women are elected at both national and local levels.

Women in employment

Women represent 39% of world employment; only 27% of managerial positions in the world were occupied by women in 2018, up only marginally from 26% in 2015. More generally, the proportion of women in management has increased since 2000 in all regions except the least developed countries.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2020 shows there has been an increase in female representation in politics. Whilst it will still take 95 years to close the gender gap in this sphere, it has had a positive effect on women occupying leadership and senior positions. According to a report from McKinsey and, there has also been an increase of 24% in female representation at executive level.

Expert analysis

Dr Diann Rodgers-Healey – Adjunct Professorial Research Fellow at the Cairns Institute in James Cook University, Australia and Director at the Australian Centre for Leadership for Women (ACLW) – speaks to us about women in academia

It is well known that women are underrepresented in the academic systems of many countries and that gender discrimination contributes to this. 

In terms of the overall results, I am not surprised to see gender discrimination being ranked third highest across the countries and within most of the zones. In a modern world, it continues to be remarkable that poverty, race and gender prevail as barriers to a fair and inclusive society, particularly in countries which rank as the richest in the world. 

The 20% gap in the male/female ratio of respondents choosing gender discrimination as a barrier is very disappointing and it is worrying to see that at an academic level, this disparity in recognition still exists. It clearly points to the challenges ahead in addressing gender discrimination, particularly when recognition of its significant impact is lacking.  

It is positive, however, that both males and females shared the view that within workplaces, bias in recruitment/promotions is the strongest barrier to impeding a fair and inclusive workplace. This was also the case with males and females concurring that manager leadership attitudes were also strong barriers to inclusion in workplaces.

This engenders hope as it points to the existence of a solid foundation for the removal of gender discrimination in workplaces. Leaders and managers are critical players in enabling this, while governments need to enforce policies that ensure equal gender representation in workplaces at all tiers. 

Governments, however, are reticent to do this, as political domains themselves are also places of gender discrimination. It will, therefore, take selfless, brave and bold leadership to change the situation and curb systemic bias. Incremental and sustained efforts by government bodies and institutions can achieve this, but only if there is a willingness to make a real difference. 

A simultaneous society wide approach is also needed to breakthrough constructed gender roles, so that workplaces reflect the new norms of inclusion and fairness that are enlivened across social, economic and political domains. Although each of us is responsible in sharing responsibility for this vision, it is time that governments and leaders advocate and institute these changes if we are to expect the new norm for an inclusive egalitarian society in the future.

Diann Rogers


Diann Rogers-Healey

The Cairns Institute

The Australian Centre for Leadership for Women


In a modern world, it continues to be remarkable that poverty, race and gender prevail as barriers to a fair and inclusive society

Diann Rodgers-Healey

What's in the report?

The report contains an introduction and 9 sections; use the grid below to navigate, or click to go to the next section.

Next section

Through the barricades: establishing barriers to inclusivity

Go to section

Breaking good: taking down the walls of academia

Go to section

Driving inclusivity: responsibilities within academic research

Go to section

Join the conversation

Publish with us

Find the right home for your research across our journals, books, teaching cases and open access options.

See how

Engage with others

Connect with our global community of librarians, where you can network, learn and share your experiences and challenges.

Find out more

Get talking

Send us a message, or get in touch via social media.

Contact us