Challenging LGBT+ exclusion in UK Higher Education

Trude Sundberg, Paul Boyce, Jenny Sherrard and Róisín Ryan-Flood

Click here to view the full report.

In recent years, seen the welcome introduction of increased formal rights for LGBT+ people. So far, responses from an increasingly neoliberal, marketized, and individualised university sector have mainly occurred through ‘top down’ responses. In practice this has meant that LGBT+ inclusion and discrimination are often addressed via ‘tick-box’ or performative approaches.

The last year we , a team of researchers together with UCU, have started working on a project mapping out the working conditions of LGBT+ staff in Higher Education. The aim of our overall project is to better understand structural barriers and wider cultures of indirect exclusion and institutional prejudice related to LGBT+ Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) in UK HE.

Here, we outline the key findings of the pilot project stage of our project. For more information about the project, the in-depth findings & recommendations and the next steps see LGBT-HE and UCU.

Against the claim of addressing and improving inequalities in higher education, our key findings describe a challenging working environment for LGBT+ staff in higher education.

As you will see in the following, our members of staff report what we call a hostile work environment characterised by a combination of high levels of job insecurity, poor health (in particular mental health) and pervasive indirect discrimination being part of our working lives – all underlining a need for systemic change and comprehensive and intersectional solutions.

It is important to underline that within our research findings Black, transgender and non-binary UK HE employees reported particularly complicated, discriminatory working experiences. Crucial during the current pandemic, we found reports of discriminations while working online, which have increased rapidly in a working from home culture brought about by responses to COVID-19.

Key Findings:

High levels of Job Insecurity among LGBT+ staff

  • 30% agree with the statement ‘I might lose my job in the next 6 months’. This response reflects insecurity across the sector as our respondents represented a range of academic and professional services positions in the institutions sampled: 28% Professional services, 10% Professors, 18% Senior Lecturers, 19% Lecturers, 14% Post-Doctoral or Research Fellows, and 10% PhD Students.
  • 67% disagree with the statement ‘If I were to lose or quit my current job, it would be easy for me to find a job of similar salary’
  • 77 % of respondents have thought about leaving HE
  • 29% say promotion criteria affect LGBT+ people negatively
  • 57% have been promoted in their current workplace, however, more Lesbian and Gay respondents have been promoted than those who identify as Bisexual and those identifying their sexual orientation as other.

Universities in the UK are elitist, tribalistic; biologically you will not be a part of the winners – we cannot all be cis-heteros. How can you be in an environment when people ask you all the time “what do you mean; I don’t understand what you are saying.” You have to make a choice for your well-being.

I feel promotion and the ability to negotiate salary has been affected by my gender – or at least the fact that men feel entitled to negotiate and to ask for promotions quicker (and more successfully).

Poor health and wellbeing among LGBT+ staff

  • 41 % have experienced burnout (which in turn is a wider problem for all employees in the sector)
  • 47% have experienced mental health issues
  • 41% have experienced chronic illness (most commonly anxiety or depression or other mental health illnesses)

Burnout and depression caused by overwork combined with the pressures of living for decades as a closeted bisexual.

I experienced harassment relating to being trans and being in a lesbian relationship. I also suffered due to public issues with academics trying to spread transphobia in my institution.

Pervasive & indirect Discrimination part of our everyday working lives

  • Derogatory language about gender identity (27%) and gender expression (30%) is more common than for sexual orientation (23%)
  • Lower confidence in reporting discrimination among non-binary people
  • Black LGBT+ staff reported more personal discriminatory experiences and derogatory language towards others (100% of Asian and Black Asian and other ethnic background respondents)
  • Homophobic / transphobic language was experienced by 25-30% of respondents.
  • 30% of respondents have experienced homophobic language
  • 22% transphobic & 10% nonbinary phobic
  • Those preferring to self-define their sexual orientation in our survey (other than Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Asexual) reported higher levels of discrimination
  • Of these, 17% of them have been discriminated on the basis of gender identity and 17% on the basis of sexual orientation
  • Of those identifying as women, non-binary or other 26%, 25% and 33% respectively have witnessed derogatory language towards others. For men this number was considerably lower at 16%

As an Early Career Researcher, I was regularly mistaken for another female queer colleague in the department, despite my being white and her being Asian.

There have been times when colleagues have expressed positions that I consider to be homophobic, although they did not necessarily understand this themselves.

Colleagues making reference to views that trans women aren’t women, for example, and/or contesting academic research and events from a trans-inclusive perspective.

Teaching & learning: an area of potential for change, contention and stress


LGBT + staff teach and do research on gender, sexuality but do not feel it is valued by institutions
  • 40% reports teach on gender, sexuality and diversity, and 42% of these felt that this is not valued by their institutions.
  • 36% percent of respondents conduct research on issues related to gender, sexuality and diversity, of these 40% do not see this as valued by their institution.
  • 47% indicated that the decolonisation work in their institution does not include working on issues related to gender diversity and sexual orientation. 45% report that it is their responsibility to carry out such work where it occurs, thus this work is not institutionally diversified outside of LGBT+ employees.
Negative experiences working abroad in the HEI sector
  • 21% of the respondents who reported working in countries other than the UK had negative experiences relating to their LGBT+ identity.
LGBT+ specific issues related to online work
  • Most did not report negative experiences but a few reported issues around how gender identities are highlighted in online teaching formats, and some reported online bullying:


“Heightened concerns over online bullying from students regarding sexuality who can feel emboldened by the anonymity of online teaching”.


“Some students have used homophobic/biphobic language about my appearance online”


91% of our respondents reported that they are ‘out’, i.e. open about their gender and sexual orientation, in the workplace. UK HE was seen as a relatively progressive context to be personally open about gender and sexual diversity.

Our workplace among both academic and professional services have a higher proportion of openly LGBT+ people than in the UK workforce as a whole.

However, respondents highlighted difficulties and stresses related to this, and described it as a repeated action met by different reactions depending on the situation.

Once you have told some staff, generally people get to know. It’s harder with students. You either have to tell a new group directly or they don’t know. I have never found this easy.


Equality policies in UK HE pertaining to the caring labour of employees are most often focused around childcare Most respondents to our survey do not have children but do have care responsibilities. 28% have care responsibilities that include care for people outside of traditional families (this includes people in the community, relations, loved-one, elderly, partners and animals). On this basis it is clear that we need further action in UK HE institutions to develop policies around care that can capture and support those who do not have traditional childcare responsibilities as well as those with non-traditional families.

Actions need to be comprehensive and occur along the following dimensions:

  • Work environments that are LGBT+ supportive and inclusive
  • LGBT+ Mental Health
  • Promotion criteria
  • Online Working
  • Negative experiences in other countries
  • Addressing and challenging the lack of value given to gender and sexuality teaching and research