As a woman working in the Higher Education (HE) research sector, Women’s Equality Day is a chance to reflect on how much has been achieved to eliminate gender equality gaps in the sector, and more importantly, how much still needs to be done. Women continue to face a variety of disadvantages during their HE experience and beyond, while also being disproportionately impacted by a variety of other inequalities. In my role within TASO’s Research & Evaluation team, I am aware that taking a gender-informed approach to research and policy interventions can increase the relevance and quality of our work. As TASO expands into two new research themes, looking at employability and mental health, I want to underline the importance of understanding how inequalities intersect with and are heightened by gender factors.

Mental health

In normal times, university students experience a worryingly high rate of mental health issues (House of Commons, 2017). Unsurprisingly, research indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this preexisting challenge and the related gender disparities.

A recent HEPI/Advance HE survey of UK higher education students found that women were more likely to report that their mental health was a little or much worse due to the COVID-19 pandemic than men. Prowse et al. (2021) also observed that female students reported a stronger impact of COVID-19 on their mental health than male counterparts.

Importantly, only 36% of women students declared that they were satisfied with delivery of mental health services during the pandemic, compared to 50% of males (HEPI, 2021).

Despite these visible disparities, a large body of research shows that although male university students tend to underreport mental health issues, they are far more likely than female students to take their own life (ONS, 2018). Gender and mental health interact in complex ways, making self-report surveys conclusions often too reductive. That is why TASO advocates for more causal research in this domain.

Employment and employability

Before the pandemic, the HEPI (2020) measured that female graduates faced a 7% pay gap one year after graduating, which grew to 24% after 10 years. This gap could not be explained by working patterns, social background, race or subject of study. The HEPI report also stated that women generally approach job-searching less confidently than men, and feel less prepared when leaving university.

The restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have significantly impacted the employment sector. To this day, the evidence base on the consequences of this sudden shift is at a development phase. Although the ASHE and the Labour Force Survey suggest that COVID-19 has had little impact on the gender pay gap in 2020 (ONS, 2020), some recently published papers provide warning signs that the pandemic may have further entrenched gender inequalities in employment.

For instance, a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (2021) analyzed that, in opposite-sex couples in England, mothers were more likely than fathers to stop working during the pandemic. But counterintuitively, these changes were not driven by a focus on immediate financial consideration and were made whether a mother earned less or more than her partner, and whether she was the only one to remain active during lockdowns. It shows that gender and employment interact in complex ways that require rigorous in-depth analysis and targeted interventions.

Eliminating inequalities – a long term vision

A key reason for TASO’s expansion into these new areas of focus is a recognition that inequalities in the HE sector do not begin and end once a university place has been offered. Issues for disadvantaged students permeate throughout their university experience and continue to affect them well into their careers. For women, these disparities are often more pronounced. It is important that Women’s Equality Day provides us with an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to creating a fairer society for all, and to recognise that we are not there yet. At TASO, we are committed to robust research to understand the scale of the existing gender inequalities and what works to address them. We are hoping to enable those across the HE sector to make more informed and effective choices to achieve this long term vision.