Beyond the buffers

Alan Ryan wonders why women still appear to be losing out in academia

April 7, 2011

Because the coalition government has taken leave of its senses, arguments about “access” have collapsed into quarrels over state school students at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. But “access” can be read in a lot of different ways. Exactly what do students have access to? What is the university experience we hope they will have?

Fifty years ago, universities were places for (mostly) young men. When I began teaching in Oxford in 1969, colleges that admitted men did not admit women, while colleges that admitted women did not admit men. Both justice and self-interest demanded a change. It was wicked to deny women equal access to a decent education - they formed one-fifth of the students - and it was silly to deny young men the civilising influence they needed, and silly to deny young women the chance to civilise them.

Unlike efforts to broaden access for the economically underprivileged, opening higher education to women has, in numerical terms, been a great success. Both in the UK and the US, women outnumber men in higher education - as they do in the general population. In the US at least, they not only outnumber men in the undergraduate population, they are well represented in presidents’ offices throughout the country.

The Ivy League was strictly a collection of eight boys’ schools in the early 1960s; today four of the eight have female presidents - and very formidable scholars and administrators they are. It seems to be almost uniformly the case that female students do a bit better than male students; in American terms, they are more likely to get honours, and their grade point averages are a shade better.

And yet…There’s an uneasy sense that women don’t get what they ought to from higher education, and that the prominence of Drew Faust as president of Harvard University or Shirley Tilghman as president of Princeton University masks continuing inequalities below these peaks.

Some are familiar and intractable. Women have a harder time making careers as scientists than do men; at every stage in the long slog from getting a decent undergraduate degree to making tenure and becoming a leader in a field of science, the ratio of women to men worsens.

It really is “worsens” rather than merely “diminishes” because it’s obvious that many women leave that career path unwillingly or reluctantly settle for the jobs that are easier to combine with having children.

Although universities on both sides of the Atlantic stop the tenure clock and provide maternity leave, nothing can fully make up for the interruptions to a research career that motherhood involves. It isn’t that absolutely no woman succeeds in spite of it, merely that the great majority of women face obstacles that the great majority of men don’t.

However, what is currently on everyone’s minds isn’t that intractable problem, but the much more peculiar problem of an apparent hesitation on the part of very clever, energetic and high-spirited women when it comes to “leadership”. I am conflicted about this. I very much enjoyed running those few things I have run, but always feared that the urge to tell other people how to conduct their business is a bit of a character defect.

But the female university and college presidents meeting in Washington last week were pretty emphatic that female academics who had ambitions to run their own or similar institutions had to grit their teeth and engage with a rough old reality. They must not submit to being slid on to the childcare committee, but get on to finance committee. They must not flinch when some old buffer insults them but get on to appointment and tenure committees so that the old buffers are not replaced by young buffers.

Such advice perhaps suffers from the defect of being too obvious to be helpful, but even if it’s obvious, it’s obviously right. Still, it’s aimed at women who have already had academically successful careers. What’s been puzzling my colleagues is the attitudes of much younger women, most of whom won’t go into academic life, and especially the seeming reluctance of female undergraduates to put themselves forward for the top positions in “student government”, the student union and the innumerable student societies to which they belong.

Anecdotally, it seems that when formerly men-only institutions went co-ed, women ran for everything; now, they seem - at the margin it must be said - to have once again settled for helping the boss rather than being the boss.

This is dangerous territory for commentators - speculating about the possible biological basis of women’s relative underperformance in the sciences was the final nail in the coffin of Larry Summers’ presidency at Harvard. Nonetheless, there is something faintly disturbing about the fact that women do better than men academically, all the way to the very top, at which point men outperform women; that they lead a richer extracurricular life than men, but they don’t lead the extracurricular organisations to which they belong. And so on.

Forty years ago, when the push for co-education began, it seemed reasonable to think that it would take a long time for real equality to be achieved - it’s a 30-year journey from entering as an undergraduate to being a well-established full professor whom colleagues will want as department chair, dean of the faculty or provost. And there have been real improvements in women’s working conditions, from better childcare arrangements to stamping out casual sexual harassment. But universities still seem to be very different places for women than they are for men, and it isn’t clear why.

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