Enhancing graduate employability, especially in humanities, arts and social sciences, and particularly for female graduates

This 2019 work by Professor Simon O’Leary of Regent’s University London, published in Studies in Higher Education, builds upon his earlier 2017 work published in the Journal of Education & Work and pulls together three sets of data to reveal opportunities for enhancing graduate employability across all subject areas that would have a notably positive impact for female graduates.

Higher Education Statistics Agency data

It is widely acknowledged that different subjects across education tend to attract differing proportions of males and females. This continues right through to higher education, with significantly higher numbers of males than females in areas such as computing, physical sciences and engineering, while females significantly outnumber males in education, languages and law.

These differences remain stark when all STEM (Sciences; Technology; Engineering; Mathematics) subjects and all SSAH (Social Sciences; Arts; Humanities) subjects are grouped and compared with each other – they become practically mirror-images of each other with approximately two-thirds of the predominant gender in each area:

Higher Education Academy (now AdvanceHE) data

Preparing and supporting our graduates for future employment is of growing interest to multiple stakeholders, not least the graduates themselves. Recent research on skills development in higher education has shown some variations by subject but the provision across subjects is of the same order of magnitude. More can still be done but the difference across these grouped areas of STEM and SSAH is minimal, with both areas fluctuating around two-thirds of the maximum:

Graduate experience data

However, while supporting graduates on enhancing their employability is one thing, they need to be able to recognise when it is happening. Interestingly, while the level of provision appears to even be slightly higher in SSAH compared to STEM, although not statistically significantly so, the level of its visibility in SSAH is notably poorer:

While only a fraction of those in STEM areas do not recognise the employability support provided, that number is ten times higher in SSAH.

Triangulating all three sets of data

It is in triangulating these three pieces of research that the full picture emerges. While the provision of employability-related support is comparable across the disciplines, it is in the subject areas where females predominate that its visibility is significantly lower.

The net result of this variation in visibility is that more females are impacted because it occurs in the female-oriented subject areas. A great opportunity exists in these areas to highlight the visibility of the support that is already being provided. This would benefit both female and male graduates, as both genders study all these subjects. However, it would have a notably positive impact on females.

Outline of the published findings1

Following identifications of gendered inconsistencies in higher education delivery2, this work exposes unseen gender-related issues in the graduate population. With graduates prevalent as managers, developing management attributes and employability is emphasised across higher education. Meanwhile, notable disciplinary gender imbalances exist across education and this research explores employability in this context by triangulating Higher Education Statistics Agency and Higher Education Academy data with graduates’ degree experiences. Findings reveal notable levels of employability-related support existing, with significant disciplinary variations in its visibility. Some remains unseen, especially in female-orientated disciplines, creating a gap populated by almost 50% more females than males. Consequently, fewer female graduates may recognise certain capabilities as being management-related, potentially resulting in slower career progression compared to male peers, as observed by the Office for National Statistics3. Opportunities exist across disciplines, especially the arts, humanities and social sciences, to enhance the visibilities of employability-related support, building further upon the need to tailor such support according to degree subject4.

1 O’Leary, S. 2019. Gender and management implications from clearer signposting of employability attributes developed across graduate disciplines, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2019.1640669.


2 Ain, C., F. Sabir, and J. Willison. 2018. Research Skills That men and Women Developed at University and Then Used in Workplaces, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2018.1496412.


3 ONS. 2019. Overeducation and Hourly Wages in the UK Labour Market; 2006 to 2017. London: Office for National Statistics.


4 O’Leary, S. 2017. Graduates’ experiences of, and attitudes towards, the inclusion of employability-related support in undergraduate degree programmes; trends and variations by subject discipline and gender, Journal of Education and Work, DOI: 10.1080/13639080.2015.1122181.


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