Who represents the interests of female staff in Scottish universities?


In October 2021 we submitted Freedom of Information requests to fifteen Scottish Universities asking whether each institution has a single-sex, female-only staff network or representative body, if so, who membership is open to. The responses indicate that no university in Scotland has any form of organised representation or networking for female staff based on the protected characteristic of sex in the Equality Act.


In October 2021 the resignation of Professor Kathleen Stock from Sussex University brought the inadequate handling of sex and gender identity issues within UK Higher Education to the fore. In interviews (here and here) Professor Stock described how recent events – including masked protesters, advice from the police to teach classes online and install CCTV outside her home – finally compelled senior managers to intervene, and the lengthy period of institutional apathy that preceded this.

The case of Professor Stock demonstrates how far debate in relation to sex and gender identity has departed from established academic standards of evidence and discourse. Nor is this an isolated case. At the University of Oxford, feminist historian Professor Selina Todd has required security at her lectures. Discussion on women’s sex-based rights has been subject to disruption and defamatory comment. Events have been postponed or cancelled, for example at Oxford Brookes, Edinburgh, and Essex. A philosophy publication was pulled because of objections to two of the authors, both of whom have been subject to other attempts to restrict their academic activities. The editor of an academic journal was the focus of a campaign for her removal, because of her work in this area. In the States, a criminologist was removed from the editorial board of the journal Feminist Criminology, following objections to her academic paper on the US Equality Act. Activists have campaigned for the dismissal of female academics who do not share a belief in innate gender identity, while outwith the academy women have lost their jobs for speaking out on this issue (see here and here). Anonymous testimonies can be accessed here.

The debate on sex and gender identity raises serious questions as to how universities should respond to and manage the evident tension between different groups and viewpoints where there are conflicts of interest. For the most part, this tension has played out in relation to questions around academic freedom, the failure of some universities to uphold this, and the implications for research and teaching. In July 2021 the Reindorf review into the cancellation of two events at Essex University exposed unlawful university policies, developed in conjunction with internal and external lobby groups, a ‘culture’ of fear among staff and students, and the deployment of accusations of transphobia to curtail academic freedom. In November 2021, following the resignation of Professor Stock, the Office for Students announced that it will investigate whether the University of Sussex has met its obligations on academic freedom and freedom of speech.

The current climate also raises the question as to who represents the interests of female staff and students in universities when such conflicts arise, and what, if any arrangements are in place to ensure that their concerns are heard. Universities are bound by the Public Sector Equality Duty, which legally requires higher education providers to assess how their policies impact on all nine protected characteristics and to foster good relationships between people with different characteristics.

Yet in the case of policies that potentially put female staff and students at a disadvantage, for example, policies that allow male-born people who self-identify as women to use female changing rooms or toilet facilities, or to compete for places in leadership schemes, it is not at clear what consideration, if any, has been given to female students and staff.   

At the University of Bristol, the feminist student society was sanctioned by the Bristol Student Union for being women-only (the society has since filed a claim against the SU at Bristol County Court). Neither the Sussex University branch of University and College Union (UCU), nor the National UCU body chose to support Professor Stock. In an extraordinary statement that was subsequently withdrawn, the former argued against ‘instrumentalising employment rights’ in defence of free speech. In a piece entitled ‘When is it right for a union to support dismissal?’ the UCU Edinburgh Branch President justified Professor Stock’s departure by drawing parallels with the case of a lecturer who was dismissed in the 1980s for his public views on paedophilia – with the caveat that ‘Stock went further’.  

‘Both Stock and Brand’s conduct, over a long period of time, was detrimental to the education of their students and to the wider community. Concerns about this were raised and repeatedly ignored. Having exhausted other avenues, those who campaigned for their dismissal were entirely correct to do so as were those who supported them.

The situation with Stock perhaps has one key difference that is worthy of specific reference. While Brand was certainly able to shelter behind the power that came with his position in the University, Stock went further. As details continue to emerge about attempts by Stock and her supporters, with the full support of institutional power at the highest level, to gag and discredit criticism, she was not the victim but the perpetrator of the very behaviour she accuses others of. This is a question of class and power and framing it as having anything to do with academic freedom or freedom of speech is just a facade.

As socialists and trade unionists we must side with the oppressed – always. That is solidarity.’ 

Buttars, RS21, 2 November 2021

In an open letter to UCU President Jo Grady, the recently established Collective of Early-career Feminist Academics wrote ‘we have been appalled to see UCU leadership repeatedly fail to defend basic principles of academic freedom and protection from harassment’.

Against this backdrop, we submitted Freedom of Information requests to fifteen Scottish Universities asking whether each institution has a single-sex, female-only staff network or representative body, if so, who membership is open to, and if not, would the institution permit this type of association to be established (with reference to Schedule 16 of the Equality Act, which allows an association whose main purpose is to bring together people who share a particular characteristic to continue to restrict membership to such people with the exception of race).

‘A female-only association may restrict access to a benefit, facility or service to female associates and may restrict guest invitations to women. (This exception also applies to religious associations as described below.) Thus universities and students’ unions can lawfully permit associations which are established for a single sex or for a particular religious community to use university facilities and advertise their events through university channels.’

Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2014: 7

This initial survey covered universities only, and therefore excluded three further HEIs in Scotland (the Glasgow School of Art, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Scotland’s Rural College).

Who represents the interests of female staff in Scottish universities?

Of the fifteen institutions, more than half stated that no such arrangements existed. Most of this group (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, Stirling, and Strathclyde) simply stated no such arrangements were in place; four (Abertay, Dundee, Glasgow Caledonian and UWS) however made an added reference to the existence of the Aurora scheme, which is run by Advance HE and is open to people who self-identify as women, or to another arrangement for women not limited to female staff.

Six institutions (Aberdeen, Edinburgh Napier, Highlands and Islands, QMU, Robert Gordon, St Andrew’s) responded positively and gave examples of networks or groups that they believed to be single-sex and female-only, or else mentioned a women’s network, but with membership criteria which showed that these arrangements were also open to people who identified as women, and in some cases, also those who identified themselves as allies.

The responses indicate that no university in Scotland has any form of organised representation or networking for female staff based on the protected characteristic of sex in the Equality Act. Each university’s response is shown below.

Also shown is the number of female staff at each institution (both academic and non-academic) and the percentage of staff recorded as female for all staff, academic posts only, and professors, as based on 2019/20 HESA data. We include staff on ‘atypical’ contracts. HESA data is rounded to the nearest 5 cases: one institution below (UHI) is recorded as having no female professors, but in practice has at least one. HESA provided female, male and other as response categories: these figures therefore appear to be collected inconsistently with the definition of sex in the Equality Act. The figures for the percentage of professors in smaller institutions will be most sensitive to how individuals are recorded, as a single person will represent a larger percentage of the total group. Over half of Scottish universities reported fewer than one hundred professors; five had fewer than fifty.

Institutions replying they have no single-sex female only staff network or representative body

University of Edinburgh
(8,265 female staff: all staff 53%, academic staff 45%, professors 27%)

‘You asked if the University has a single-sex, female-only staff network or representative body, and if so, to provide a copy of the terms on which membership is open to staff.

I can confirm that the University does not have a single-sex, female-only staff network. The current list of Equality Diversity and Inclusion committees and networks is available on the University website.

If there is no such network, you also asked whether the University would permit a single-sex, female-only staff network or representative body, and cited the exceptions in Schedule 16 of the Equality Act 2010. Finally, if this network would not be permitted, you asked for the reason(s) for this decision.

The University balances its duties under the Equality Act 2010 when considering any staff network’s membership criteria. However, we are unable to speculate on future decisions and reasons with regards the formation of a single-sex, female-only staff network.’

University of Edinburgh, 8 November 2021

University of Glasgow
(5,240 female staff: all staff 55%, academic staff, 48%, professors 30%)

‘The University of Glasgow does not have a University-wide network for this.’

University of Glasgow, 18 November 2021

Heriot Watt University
(1,200 female staff: all staff 45%, academic staff 34%, professors 15%)

‘Heriot-Watt University supports and engages in activity to address gender inequality in higher education. We are taking steps to make sure that there are no barriers to anyone progressing and reaching their full potential because of their gender. 

The University supports positive action initiatives where there is a case for action as described in the Equality Act 2010.

We do not presently host a single-sex, female-only university staff network or representative body. We have a number of groups open to all that support women and non-binary people to feel an enhanced sense of belonging and address issues such as exceptionalism, stereotype threat and lonely cohort. Often it is mainly women who attend these, but all are welcome. The decision to keep these opportunities open to all has been led by the community organisers themselves. Should there be an interest in establishing a female-only group we would refer to the positive action stipulations of the Equality Act 2010.’

Heriot Watt University, 8 November 2021

University of Stirling
(1,330 female staff: all staff 60%, academic staff 53%, professors 38%)

‘No, the University does not have a single-sex, female-only staff network or representative body.’

University of Stirling, 4 November 2021

University of Strathclyde
(2,755 female staff: all staff 48%, academic staff 37%, professors 21%)

‘The University aims to be inclusive and to offer opportunities and support to its population based on common interest, rather than an individual characteristic. It does not have a female-only staff network or representative body but does promote a range of accessible networks, such as StrathPride: the LGBTQI+ Staff and PGR Student Network and the Carers Support Group.’

University of Strathclyde, 5 November 2021

Institutions replying they have no single-sex female only staff network or representative body but referring to the Aurora Network or another arrangement for women

Abertay University
(250 female staff: all staff 52%, academic staff 42%, professors 33%)

‘Information not held: The University does not have a single-sex, female-only staff network or representative body. However, there are periodic meetings of staff who are current/former participants in the Aurora women’s leadership programme.’

Abertay University, 14 October 2021

University of Dundee
(2,420 female staff: all staff 56%, academic staff 50%, professors 25%)

‘no such network exists in the University although there are Aurora networks across HEIs. We would permit a single sex network to be established.’

University of Dundee, 9 November 2021

Glasgow Caledonian University
(1,315 female staff: all staff 58%, academic staff 53%, professors 40%)

‘No. GCU does have the Aurora Network, the leadership development initiative run by the Advance HE which includes male mentors who form part of the overall network and the Menopause Cafe Group, an informal networking group with male allies.’

Glasgow Caledonian University, 9 November 2021

University of the West of Scotland
(775 female staff: all staff 59%, academic staff 50%, professors 25%)

‘No, however, the University does have a staff network aimed to target issues most relevant to women, UWS HigHER, this network launched in January 2020. Everyone is welcome in the Network; however, events may be targeted at issues most relevant to women.’

University of the West of Scotland, 8 November 2021

Institutions replying positively, or referring to a women’s network, but giving examples with coverage defined inconsistently with the Equality Act 2010

University of Aberdeen
(2,150 female staff: all staff 56%, academic staff 46%, professors 32%)

‘Yes – the University has a single sex, female only staff network. This is the Women’s Development Network and it is open to female staff or anyone identifying as female.’

University of Aberdeen, 28 October 2021

Edinburgh Napier University
(965 female staff: all staff 55%, academic staff 47%, professors 40%)

‘Edinburgh Napier University has a “Women’s Network”.

All staff who identify as female and staff who identify as allies and supporters can participate in the network. It provides a forum primarily for the discussion of issues affecting women and gender equality at Edinburgh Napier and beyond.’

Edinburgh Napier University, 28 October 2021

University of the Highlands and Islands
(220 female staff: all staff 65%, academic staff 59%, professors 0%)

‘UHI has a women’s network, we meet 3-4 times a year.

The network is open to any colleagues who identify as a woman, in any role, you can find more information of the network here.  There is also a women’s network reading group which is open to anyone across UHI, the group discusses books, journal articles and text on feminism or women’s experiences. There is also a UHI Women’s Network Yammer group that anyone can contribute.’

University of the Highlands and Islands, 25 October 2021

Queen Margaret’s University
(420 female staff: all staff 66%, academic staff 69%, professors 50%)

‘Yes the University has a single-sex, female-only staff network. The University participates in the Advance HE Aurora Scheme, and as part of that scheme there is an informal network of Aurora delegates past and present.

The QMU Aurora network is a mutually supportive and collegiate network of female academic and professional services staff at the University.  The network facilitates the sharing of experience, best practice and expertise whilst recognising the challenges faced by women in leadership positions and those who aspire to progress. Collectively the network will take positive actions to address the challenges faced by women working in higher education.’

Queen Margaret University, 15 October 2021

Robert Gordon University
(895 female staff: all staff 60%, academic staff 53%, professors 60%)

‘Yes. There is a staff-led Women’s Network at the University. This is an informal network, run by staff on a voluntary basis. There are two criteria for membership i.e. the applicant is (i) female or identifies as female and (ii) is a member of University staff.’

Robert Gordon University, 25 October 2021

University of St. Andrews
(1,820 female staff: all staff 50%, academic staff 43%, professors 24%)

‘Yes. These are informal networks and information is publicly available on the following webpages:

Women in Science St Andrews  
Early Career Women Network
The Elizabeth Garrett Mentoring Programme

[MBM note: As noted in the links above, Women in Science St Andrews, the Early Career Women Network and Aurora are all open to people who self-define as women. We could not find specific membership criteria for the Elizabeth Garrett Mentoring Programme.]

University of St Andrews, 22 October 2021


From the above responses, it seems clear that dedicated institutional support and representation for female staff in Scottish Universities, at an organisational level, is virtually non-existent.

The responses also provide evidence of the ongoing confusion as to the law in this area and what is meant by ordinary terms such as ‘single-sex’ and ‘female’, with several universities stating that such a scheme was in place, and then describing membership terms that provide for both sexes (which is more consistent with Stonewall’s interpretation of the law in this area, as highlighted in the Reindorf review). This confusion is also reflected in other University policies. For example, St Andrew’s, Glasgow and Glasgow Caledonian all refer to the protected characteristic of sex as ‘sex(gender)’ or a similar variation on their Equality and Diversity webpages. 

In the absence of institutional support or representation, in relation to points of conflict, the position of female staff is likely to be weakened further where staff associations which pursue policies seeking to prioritise self-identity over sex are strongly supported. This imbalance is most likely to be felt where such staff associations have the capacity to influence policy. For example, one of the roles of the Robert Gordon University LGBT+ Staff Network is to ‘act in an advisory role to the university to ensure that sexual orientation and gender identity considerations are integrated into the policies and practices of the university’. At St Andrews, the staff LGBTIQ+ Network, which is funded by the University, aims to ‘Provide effective solutions in policy/planning development’. Further details are available in its Stonewall Workplace Equality Index application, for example, how ‘HR conducted focus group with Staff LGBTIQ+ Network members’. The University of Dundee LGBT+ Staff Network helps to ‘develop, shape and advance LGBT+ equality and foster good relations through active involvement, consultation and feedback on the University’s strategy, policies, practices and guidance’. The University of Glasgow LGBTQ+ Network aims to ‘inform University management with respect to LGBT+ Equality & Diversity’. And the University of Edinburgh Staff Pride Network (SPN) provides ‘a forum with which the University can consult on project and policy related matters’. Participation in the SPN is also incorporated into workload allocation and may be rewarded financially.  

‘Many Staff Pride Network members and volunteers have had their Staff Pride Network contributions acknowledged in their annual appraisal and annual measurable objectives have included continued Network success and climbing the Stonewall Equality Index.

Academic SPN staff committee members have their time and contribution to citizenship activities, such as the Staff Pride Network recognised not only in the annual review, but also incorporated into their annual workload allocation model. This acknowledges time they provide on LGBT+ inclusion matters, and contributes to their career development.

EDI also provides managers, at their request, with statements of support to be put forward under the annual salary contribution point or lump sum payment process, to recognise their contribution to the on-going success of the Network. EDI are aware that submission for awards were successfully implemented.

… Our Voucher Reward Scheme allows managers to recognise and reward acts of excellence or exceptional effort by nominating a member or members of their team for a retail voucher to the value of £50 or £100 and this scheme has also been used to recognise SPN Committee contribution.’

University of Edinburgh, 2021: 11

In a detailed article on the University of Edinburgh Stonewall submission, employment and discrimination Barrister Naomi Cunningham observes: 

‘Edinburgh University publishes all its equality policies, here. What’s striking about that list is that gender reassignment is the only protected characteristic that has its own dedicated policy. There is no “Sex Equality Policy,” no “Disability Equality Policy,” no “Race Equality Policy,” no “Religion or Belief Equality Policy.” There isn’t even a general “LGBT Equality Policy.” But there is a special “Trans Equality Policy.”’

Cunningham, Legal Feminist, 1 February 2021

As discrimination solicitor Audrey Ludwig highlights, competing needs between groups are not exceptional. Yet without extending equivalent levels of institutional support to female staff, it is difficult to see how universities can fairly manage any conflicts of interests or rights that might arise.

As noted above, we also asked whether each institution would allow a single-sex network or representative body to be established. Most declined to answer on the basis that the information was not held, although Dundee and Heriot Watt indicated that such an arrangement would be permitted. Whether such an arrangement would gain traction in the current febrile climate – in other words, whether female staff would feel comfortable participating in a body directly representing their interests – is a separate and sobering question for managers to consider.

The larger issue at stake here is not the debate on sex and gender identity. It is the failure of universities to recognise, at a policy level, the common structural factor at play, namely the fact of being born female, and to understand that sex matters.  

That some workplace issues affect women differently, compared to men, is not a controversial point. Issues exclusively affecting female staff include any related to menstruation, miscarriage support, pregnancy and maternity rights and the menopause. Other issues affect staff differently by sex. By dint of the biological clock, the reliance in HE on insecure contracts has larger implications for female early career researchers in their 20s and 30s than for their male counterparts. During the pandemic, the weight of childcare responsibilities fell disproportionately on female academics, as research outputs from men increased.

Pay and promotion differ by sex. Looking at HESA data for the fifteen Scottish universities above, female staff account for 54% of the overall workforce, 46% of all academic staff, but only 28% of professorial academic staff. The UCU has argued the ’gender pay gap’ will take 40 years to close in HE. The TUC has identified that a major effect driving pay differences between men and women across the workforce in general is a ‘motherhood pay penalty’.  There is good evidence that student survey results tend to be biased against female staff, compared to their male colleagues, with practical career consequences. These are differences in experience by sex, whether accounted for by physical experiences unique to women, structures and systems that work better for men in practice, or outright sexist behaviour. Looking beyond immediate employment issues, it is widely accepted that sexual assault and harassment in universities affects women, including women staff, far more than men.

Such issues may well be addressed as discrete packages within institutions, from the ‘Menopause café’ cited by Glasgow Caledonian University, to the various initiatives designed to encourage women into leadership roles. Yet as noted above, none (with the possible exception of the Elizabeth Garrett mentoring scheme at St Andrew’s) are specifically tailored for women. Nor is the widely adopted Athena Swan Charter scheme helpful in this respect. Originally intended to support women in STEM subjects, the recently transformed Athena Swan Charter ‘supports greater inclusivity for people in all roles, of all gender identities’ and in signing up to its principles, requires institutions to commit to ‘fostering collective understanding that individuals have the right to determine their own gender identity’. More prosaically, research suggests that the administrative burden of participating in the Athena Swan scheme often falls on female staff.

Scottish higher education has yet to eliminate sex discrimination. A lack of organised capacity to engage with and strategically influence university policy can only weaken the hand of female staff and is likely to put women at a systematic disadvantage within Higher Education. With women representing over half of the university workforce in Scotland, facilitating arrangements that provide dedicated institutional support and representation for female staff now feels like a necessary and long overdue challenge.