Skip to content

Higher education institutions (HEIs) rightly seek to be diverse and inclusive. Many initiatives focus on LGBT+ people as a group which is presumed to be underrepresented. Now, for the first time, it is possible to assess the state of LGBT+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and ‘other’) representation in higher education.

The 2021 census for England and Wales was the first to include questions on sexuality and gender identity. This provides a vital resource for equalities monitoring, because, without population data, we have nothing to compare institutional and sector data to.

Our analysis examines staff representation across academic and non-academic roles and seniority levels, and looks at both staff and student representation for STEM and non-STEM subjects. There have been claims that LGBT+ people are particularly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). For example, last year the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) announced a programme of grants funded by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology to address LGBT+ underrepresentation in STEM. An RSC submission to a UK parliamentary inquiry in 2022 into diversity and inclusion in STEM stated: ‘As our data and evidence shows, LGBT+ individuals are a group facing significant barriers to representation, progression and retention in STEM.’ Yet the report they refer to does not quantify representation, progression or retention.

Figure 1 shows a comparison of census data for England and Wales using Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data.

‘The question “Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?” appears to have confused some respondents, leading to false positives, particularly for people who are not fluent in English or lack basic educational qualifications.’

We acknowledge that the question on gender identity used by both the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and HESA is flawed. The question ‘Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?’ appears to have confused some respondents, leading to false positives, particularly for people who are not fluent in English or lack basic educational qualifications (Biggs, 2023). Given that the HESA sample is more highly educated than the general population, the HESA estimate of the trans population is likely to be more accurate than the census figures.


Figure 1: Census and HESA data compared

Note: A red bar is not shown where trans data are not available in our datasets.

Younger people and more highly educated people are relatively likely to be LGBT+. We have taken this into account in our analyses (Armstrong & Sullivan, 2024).

In the 2021 England and Wales census, nearly 5 per cent of the population of working-age people with level 4 (degree equivalent) qualifications said they were LGB+. The HESA data reveal that for higher education staff, this rose to over 8 per cent, with LGB+ staff disproportionately represented in every category; while 6.87 per cent of staff in STEM subjects are LGB+, which is higher than the general population, but not dramatically so. In non-STEM subjects, over 10 per cent of staff are LGB+, more than twice the figure one might expect from the general population.

For students, the most relevant comparison is with the 9.41 per cent of people aged 16–24 with level 3 qualifications who are LGB+. Student LGB+ representation is somewhat higher than this, both for STEM (10.41 per cent) and non-STEM (12.87 per cent) subjects. Student LGBT+ representation is considerably more in line with the general population than staff LGBT+ representation.

Although LGBT+ is often used as an umbrella term, there is no reason to assume that each category under this umbrella shares a similar experience. We find that the level of representation varies between these groups. For example, trans people are 7.5 times more represented among senior managers than among the population of people with degree-equivalent qualifications. Gay men are 2.9 times and lesbians 1.8 times more represented as senior managers, whereas bisexual people are not overrepresented (though their apparent underrepresentation is an artefact of the age distributions).

What does this mean for the sector?

This presents a positive picture for the higher education sector, suggesting that fears of LGBT+ underrepresentation may be unfounded. LGBT+ representation among university staff is surprisingly high, particularly in non-STEM subjects. The high representation of LGBT+ people may be due to a range of factors, including higher education being perceived as a tolerant and inclusive environment.

Variability in the representation of the groups under the LGBT+ umbrella suggests that it is important to disaggregate using meaningful categories in order to understand the diverse experiences of these groups. For example, gay men and lesbians are distinct groups with different levels of representation.

Organisations are obliged not to discriminate against individuals due to their protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. Although positive action can be taken to support underrepresented groups, in the absence of evidence of LGBT+ underrepresentation, it seems likely that ‘affirmative action’ measures with the goal of increasing the number of LGBT+ staff at universities could be unlawful.

Nevertheless, groups which are highly represented can still experience discrimination in many forms, and universities have a duty to promote inclusion for the full diversity of staff and students.


Armstrong, J., & Sullivan, A. (2024). LGBT representation Higher Education in England and Wales.  

Biggs, M. (2023). Gender identity in the 2021 Census of England and Wales: What went wrong?

More content by John Armstrong and Alice Sullivan