Encouraging Diversity in University – Highlights of the 30% Club’s Seminar

As part of Copylab’s work with the 30% Club, we sent our intrepid reporter Susannah Green to cover the club’s recent seminar on higher education and leadership. Here’s what she found:

On 21 April, for the first time, the 30% Club brought together leading lights from the UK’s corporate and higher-education worlds to debate ideas about driving greater diversity in those sectors. Held at 1 Canada Square, the event focused on universities and the path to employment, equality, diversity in higher education, and cross-sector mobility between the public and private sectors. Thirty-five universities have signed up to the 30% Club Higher Education initiative in its first year, and a number of aspiring members also attended the seminar.

Creative Connection provide an artist's impression of the day's proceedings.

Creative Connection provide an artist’s impression of the day’s proceedings.

The event opened with a lively panel discussion on the student experience and bridging the gap between university and work. Students’ school and degree subjects remain a challenge to equality, the panel said, with fewer women choosing disciplines such as engineering, technology and architecture. As for motivating factors behind a career, the panel noted that while men looked for higher pay, women wanted more “worthwhile” careers.

The Think Future Study highlighted that although most students were confident in their ability to succeed academically, they had little faith in the world of employment and 57% did not know what they wanted to do after university. Helena Eccles, a student and founder of the Think Future Study, said that students needed to be better equipped for entering the workforce. To address these issues, the panel recommended:

  • Greater access to career advisers and a more tailored service
  • Students using university experience to demonstrate transferrable skills
  • Developing alumni networks of young women
  • Enhancing the reputation of the financial and business world so it is perceived as a more appealing and “worthwhile” career option for women
  • Having strong role models for female students at university
  • Increasing diversity among university professors

David Ruebain, chief executive of the Equality Challenge Unit, then discussed the evolution of the legal concept of equality. While previous legislation had a narrow focus on direct discrimination, the law now recognises that structures and organisations can be disadvantageous in themselves. The focus has moved from one of mere equality of opportunity, to a legal system that also recognises the importance of the outcome. The focus has shifted from “fixing women” to “fixing the system”.


Discussing employment in higher education, the panel noted that the number of women working at universities has increased six-fold in 40 years, with women representing 53.8% of all higher-education staff in 2013/14. Despite that, women remain under-represented among professors and there is a persistent pay gap, averaging 18.9%, between men and women. Though the widely held notion that women do not enjoy leadership has, the panel said, been refuted by research, they do feel more obliged than men to meet all the job criteria when applying for roles. As a result, women are less likely to go for more senior positions.

To address this, the panel suggested women could be mentored to increase their confidence and guide them through the finer points of gaining promotions. Other proposals included better child-care provision, networking opportunities and more flexible working hours. Above all, panel members agreed that strong leaders and champions are needed to change culture within universities.



Professor Simonetta Manfredi, director of the Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice at Oxford Brookes University, then led a discussion on mobility between public- and private-sector boards. Noting similar responsibilities between private- and public-sector board positions – notably in leadership, governance and management – the panel said that the number of non-executive directors (NEDs) coming from academia is extremely low in the UK. This contrasts with the US, where almost 50% of Fortune 100 companies have an NED with an academic background. The panel said that typically women find it harder to promote themselves, even when they’re eager to “give something back” to society. Other issues regarding cross-sector mobility included:

  • The private sector often underestimates the skills and abilities needed by people working in the public sector
  • Corporate boards sometimes have a blinkered view of academia and “eccentric professors”
  • While academics may have strong opinions in their own field, they tend to contribute less in other discussions
  • Conversely, public-sector workers may have a distrust of the corporate world, discouraging them from applying

It is crucial, the panel said, to promote the talent available. For those interested in joining a company board, the route for doing so should be clearer, with help provided at an earlier stage in their career path.

The seminar highlighted the significant overlap of challenges and opportunities for improvement within the corporate world and higher-education sector. As such, we hope that this event represents the first of many steps in the sharing and collaboration of ideas between these two spheres.