Professors’ portraits show resolve to tackle gender deficit

Striking visual display in King’s College London corridor symbolises how higher education is taking professorial problem seriously

May 25, 2017
Source: iStock

Outside King’s College London’s Great Hall is a rare thing for a university: a collection of portraits featuring only senior female faculty.

What is just as striking about the Meet the Professors display, which includes photographs of dozens of current King’s female professors of different disciplines, ethnicities and ages, is the institution’s frank admission about its deficit of female professors.

“Women comprise 50 per cent of our academic workforce [but] only 26 per cent of our professors are female and, of these, only 6 per cent are from [black and minority ethnic] BME backgrounds,” reads the caption introducing the permanent exhibition, adding that “there is more work to be done”.

Having this prominent mea culpa on its Strand campus shows how seriously the university takes this issue, with other institutions also developing detailed action plans designed to bring more women into senior ranks. Ignoring the problem is no longer an option, nor is simply blaming low female application rates to promotion panels.

New data on the proportion of professorships held by women across the UK sector help to put the issue into a national and international context. The 26 per cent proportion at King’s is perhaps not as bad as it sounds and compares favourably with many of the institution’s Russell Group peers. Its progress on this metric – roughly the same as the University of Cambridge’s – is, however, not as rapid as many might hope, particularly given that it has now been an Athena SWAN member for 10 years.

Critics will argue, with some justification, that you cannot conjure up many more female professors in a matter of years. It takes far longer, perhaps decades, requiring fundamental change at both institutional and national level, starting as early as primary school, some will argue.

But there are some fairly easy wins, too. The Meet the Professors display is a good way to publicise and celebrate outstanding female professors, with commentaries accompanying each photo relating how many of them succeeded while balancing the demands of having children or overcoming difficult personal circumstances. More public data may also help to drive further change – with Harvard University’s annual diversity reports, complete with breakdowns of promotion by race and gender, offering a highly detailed model for UK universities to emulate.

Gaining a 50:50 gender split in the UK professoriate is a long way off yet but, as Ingrid Molema, head of the Dutch Network of Women Professors, notes, hitting a 30:70 split may be enough – the tipping point at which a more fundamental cultural shift occurs, creating a much more supportive environment for female scholars. Some scholars may argue that, with Athena SWAN, UK universities are already there, but it is heartening that most institutions appear to think that the change is just beginning.

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Print headline: Wall of female faces shows resolve to tackle inequality

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