Where are all the female population geography professors?

Blog #11 Gender

July 2nd, 2018
PGRG Blog #11
Nissa Finney

It was recently remarked to me that I am the first female Chair of the RGS-IBG Population Geography Research Group. I was struck by this comment and turned to the archives of the Research Group in Area and the Royal Geographical Society files of AGM minutes to verify this and, indeed, it appears to be the case. However, I was only partially successful in my reconstruction of the Chairs of the group from these records, as table 1 shows. Records are missing for the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s and I call on you to help fill the gaps (let us know at pgrg.rgsibg@gmail.com or @pgrg_rgsibg). We are fortunate that there are a number of original and early members who are still active in UK Population Geography so I am hopeful that we can successfully reconstruct this record.

Table 1: Chairs of the RGS-IBG Population Geography Research Group

Years Population Geography Research Group Chair
1971-74 John I Clarke (Durham)
1974-77 Edwin Brooks (Liverpool)
1977-1980 John Dewdney (Durham)
?? ??
?? Phil Rees (Leeds)
1988- Bob Woods (Liverpool)
?? ??
??-1995? Tony Champion (Newcastle)
1995?-2007 ??
2007-2013 Darren Smith (Brighton/Loughborough)
2013-2016 Ian Shuttleworth (Queen’s University Belfast)
2016-2019 Nissa Finney (St Andrews)

Can you help fill in the gaps? Let us know at pgrg.rgsibg@gmail.com or @pgrg_rgsibg


Assuming that it is correct that the Research Group did not have a female Chair until 2017, it has taken five decades for this situation to come about. As the oldest of the RGS-IBG Research Groups (being in existence formally as a Study Group since 1968), and approaching its seventh decade of work, it is about time that this gender disparity is addressed.

Of course, females are not absent in their contributions to Population Geography in the past or today and in the historical records the contributions of important female UK population geographers are evident, including those of Elspeth Graham, Alison McCleery, Eilidh Garrett, Deborah Sporton. Nevertheless, there is a relative invisibility of female population geographers historically. It is pleasing that today, the committee of the PopGRG has an even gender balance (indeed, females are overrepresented).

There has been a great deal of discussion this year of gender equality and gender representation. Academia has not been in the popular spotlight but it is by no means new to these debates or to initiatives to respond to them, including Athena Swan which has been in existence since 1999. Within Geography, gender representation has been a particular interest of the Gender and Feminist Geographies Research Group. Most recently, publications from the work of the group point out that over the last two decades “[d]espite burgeoning growth in feminist scholarship within geography, sparse attention has been given directly to women’s position in UK HE geography” (Maddrell et al 2016, p48). Maddrell et al observe that gender disparities in UK Higher Education Geography have decreased since the 1970s but still constitute a major concern for the discipline. For example, in 1978, 4 percent of UK Geography Professors were female; by 2013 the figure was 21 percent (ibid, p50).

So, what of Population Geography? Figure 1 presents the percent of Population Geography Research Group members by membership type – Postgraduate, Fellow and Professor – and gender (accurate at May 2018). Of course, not all Population Geographers will be members of the Research Group (Why not? Come on and join us!), but this is nevertheless a useful indicator. Overall, 43 percent of PopGRG members are female. However, there are considerable disparities in the proportions of male and female Postgraduates, Fellows and Professors. Females in the PopGRG are over-represented among Postgraduates and underrepresented among Fellows and, particularly, Professors: 3 percent of PopGRG members are female professors while 15 percent are male professors. Another way to put this is that fewer than one in five of the PopGRG Professorial members are female (17 percent).

Figure 1: RGS-IBG Population Geography Research Group members by membership type and gender (percent, May 2018)


Why might we see such under-representation of women in Population Geography, particularly at more senior levels? Some of the explanation will be from factors common across the discipline: employment precarity, caring responsibilities, departmental cultures, discrimination and bullying and marginalisation (Maddrell et al 2016).

Are there also some factors that are specific to our sub-discipline? Is there something about the reputation of the sub-discipline as ‘male’? Is this connected to assumptions about the epistemological and methodological preferences of the sub-discipline which are themselves gendered? Do we work in exclusionary ways, that hinder the career progression of female Population Geographers? Is this just a UK phenomenon?

Is the current state partly a result of the demographic momentum of UK Population Geography? Will the balance look more even in ten or twenty years? This would be an optimistic assessment and, I venture, will not be the case without nurturing of today’s early career Population Geographers.

It is with some irony that I write this blog on parental leave and not surprising that I am particularly attuned to issues of gender equality as I reflect on the career-effect of not working for three of the last nine years, and working on a fractional contract for most of this time. My being able to continue this role despite caring responsibilities is a testimony to the support of the PopGRG Committee, and the mentors and colleagues I have had. Such collegiality is vital to addressing inequalities in our discipline.

So, I open this debate, and I look forward to your reactions in the hope that we can together create an environment in which male and female Population Geographers can thrive.

Nissa Finney
University of St Andrews
Chair of the RGS-IBG Population Geography Research Group



Acknowledgement: Thanks to the Research and Higher Education section of the RGS-IBG for making PopGRG data available.



Maddrell, A., K. Strauss, N.J. Thomas and S. Wyse (2016) ‘Mind the gap: gender disparities still to be addressed in UK Higher Education geography’ Area 48(1): 48-56 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/area.12223

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