Aerial view of students in a lecture hall

BISA/PSA report: 'Career trajectories in UK departments of Politics and International Relations’ - launch and response

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In 2020-21, BISA and the Political Studies Association (PSA) commissioned Professor Chris Hanretty[1] to undertake ‘Career trajectories in UK departments of politics and international relations’ research to gain a more detailed understanding of the profile of academic staff working in the UK in the discipline of Politics and International Relations. We have long had anecdotal data indicating that there are fewer women and ethnic minority colleagues in senior academic roles (professors, readers, senior lecturers, heads of school and department) in our discipline. However, we lacked the data we needed to make sense of colleagues’ career trajectories, and the points at which women and ethnic minority colleagues face barriers to progression, or at which they exit the profession.

This report closes that data gap. It provides a much clearer profile of our discipline, and makes for sober reading. Drawing on HESA data from academic year 2012/13 (the earliest year for which data is available) to academic year 2018/19 (the most recent year for which data is available), the report’s key findings are:

  • Over 3,000 people were employed by Higher Education providers in the UK to carry out research and teaching in the field of politics and international relations;
  • 61% of those staff were identified as male,[2] and 78% as white;
  • Between 2012/13 and 2018/19, the proportion of staff identified as female increased from 33% to 39%;
  • The proportion of staff identified as being from an ethnic minority increased from 9.3% to 13.2%;
  • Members of staff identified as men and as white are over-represented at senior levels compared to their proportion in the academic work force more generally;
  • Just 29% of senior academics (senior lectures, readers, professors) are identified as female;
  • Controlling for length of experience in higher education, staff identified as female are 6.2 percentage points less likely to be in a senior position;
  • Just 13% of senior academics are identified as being from an ethnic minority;
  • Controlling for length of experience in higher education, members of staff identified as being from an ethnic minority are 5.6 percentage points less likely to be in a senior position, and were 2 percentage points more likely to exit employment in higher education in any given year in the period 2012/13 to 2018/19.

Other striking findings include the fact that compared to the adjacent disciplines of Sociology and Law, the discipline of Politics and IR has a greater proportion of staff identified as male, a lower proportion of staff identified as female in senior positions, and a strikingly low proportion of staff identified as being from an ethnic minority in senior positions.

These findings matter for BISA and for our discipline for several reasons.

First, students of Politics and IR encounter an academic staff base that is very white and very male. For many of our students, they won’t see themselves reflected in the community of scholars who teach them. This will reinforce a particular perspective of our discipline and the career options open to our students that will in turn reproduce itself, further entrenching stubborn inequalities. Years of research on equality, diversity and inclusion demonstrates that people are deterred from pursuing their ambitions when confronted with a lack of representation in the roles they aspire to. Considering that our work focuses on international relations, and the problems we seek to address are truly global, the composition of our staff base raises important questions about whether as a discipline we can really claim to provide our students with an adequately diverse range of perspectives and lived experience.

Second, while some very positive steps have been taken towards rectifying the gender gap in hiring and progression, there has been far less work done to address the low levels of recruitment among ethnic minorities, and the attendant problems of constrained career progression. This report clearly shows that we have a pipeline problem, (a finding already identified by the Leading Routes report on the structural inequalities that impede Black students from securing Research Council PhD funding),[3] a progression problem, and a retention problem.

Third, although the findings of this report are significant and sobering, we do not have a clear understanding of what is driving a lack of progress on these issues. A key question is whether we can learn from gender initiatives to address the obstacles faced by ethnic minority colleagues. As the report highlights, we need a wider collective recognition of the causes, including any institutional and discipline-related ones, which contribute to ethnic minority colleagues leaving at higher rates, and there are strong grounds for exit interviews. This might well reveal a need for better support around career progression and mentoring.  Some existing initiatives aimed at stemming the exit of women from the profession might be translatable. These include making promotion processes fairer and more transparent, tailored mentoring schemes, and a recognition that periods of maternity leave can impact on career trajectory, especially if compounded by heavy teaching and pastoral support loads.

But we also know that ethnic minority colleagues often face a greater burden of labour-intensive and invisible work that rarely counts in securing a temporary contract, being appointed to a lectureship, or building a robust case for progression. This labour can also be a distraction from those activities that lead to accelerated progression. Our institutions turn to them to undertake anti-racism and decolonising the curriculum work, for example. They also become the go-to people for academic and pastoral support from the ethnic minority students who see so few people like themselves across the staff. As the report clearly states, there are strong grounds for institutions to be much more attentive to factors that impact recruitment, retention and progression of ethnic minority colleagues, but it is BISA’s view that such data gathering needs to be proactive rather than reactive, so that we quickly develop a fuller understanding of how we can retain and support ethnic minority staff properly, well before they make the difficult decision to leave an institution or even academia altogether.

Finally, there are no grounds for complacency on gender. As the report shows, just 29% of colleagues in senior positions (senior lecturer and above) are identified as female, and at current rates, we are unlikely to reach 50% in the short to medium term, i.e., next 10 years. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact for many colleagues, male and female alike, but early indications suggest that caring burdens and the need to switch activity away from research have disproportionately fallen on women colleagues. That will have long term legacy effects and needs urgent attention if the small and slow gains in our discipline on gender parity are not to be reversed.

From BISA’s perspective, the publication of the Career Trajectories report is very timely, as we begin to implement our five-year Equality, Diversity and Inclusion strategy. These reflections provide an indication of where we as a professional association have a duty to work closely with other allied associations to foreground the EDI agenda in our activities, and to champion the needs of our membership and their academic departments in several areas:

  1. to better understand the factors that impede recruitment, retention and progression of women and ethnic minority members;
  2. to explore whether the intersections of certain protected characteristics exacerbate these effects and to identify ways to address this if so;
  3. to support and share best practice across our networks, including the PSA-BISA Head of Departments network;
  4. to better reflect the range of expertise and knowledge that will only serve to enrich the disciplines of Politics and IR; and
  5. to ensure that we explore ways to cultivate a disciplinary community in which all students can see themselves reflected in our people, our teaching and research, and our wider ethos.

Professor Ruth Blakeley (BISA Vice-Chair


[1] BISA would like to note its thanks to Prof Hanretty for his careful and detailed work, and to the PSA Board of Trustees for collaborating on this initiative.

[2] The HESA data analysed in the report contain information about the sex of members of staff rather than gender, because it wasn’t until 2017/18 that questions about gender identity entered the HESA staff record. Conditions of use of the data, designed to prevent de-anonymisation, also mean that intersectional inequalities cannot easily be teased out, because the numbers of colleagues from, for example, ethnic minority groups who are also female and in senior positions, are so small, that the identities of those colleagues could easily be revealed (see pages 11 and 14 of the report). Because of these restrictions the data may also be masking lower rates among specific groups, e.g. Black British compared with South Asian.



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