Leader: It's time for a fifty per cent solution

July 14, 2006

Higher education is being feminised, and not before time.

For too long, higher education resembled the priesthood, ignoring the intelligence and talents of more than half of humanity. But as the Higher Education Workforce report reveals, significant change is under way. It shows that while women made up 34 per cent of lecturers in 1995-96, that proportion had reached 46 per cent by 2004-05.

There was also an improvement in the proportion of women at senior levels, although they still comprised just 14 per cent of all professors in 2004-05. There are many reasons for the rise of women in higher education.

One is the decision some ten years ago to move nursing, a heavily feminised discipline, into universities; another is the growth of subjects allied to medicine, where women also enjoy fairer representation.

A wider shift in course provision away from subjects perceived to be "masculine", such as the physical sciences and engineering, towards more "feminine" areas in creative arts and communication have also created opportunities for women. Then there is a demographic effect with an entire generation of largely male academics who, having started their careers as higher education expanded in the 1960s, have retired recently or are about to do so. Universities' continuing efforts to recruit, support and promote female staff mean that many of those who are replacing these men will be women.

All of this is to be welcomed, but only as a starting point. Universities cannot afford to rest on their laurels and must redouble their efforts to increase the number of women in academe, particularly at senior levels.

Tucked away in this week's report is another interesting fact. It shows that the number of male lecturers declined from 22,000 to under 18,000 between 1995-96 and 2004-05. This may simply represent the shift towards a fairer 50-50 split between male and female lecturers. However, it is interesting to note that in teaching, where less than 20 per cent of primary and about 30 per cent of secondary school teachers are male, men are less likely to apply when the economy is booming and higher paying jobs are more readily available elsewhere.

The recent pay dispute sought, and some would say failed, to redress the historic shortfall in higher education pay. It would be a great pity if chronic and prolonged low pay persuaded both women and men that a career in higher education was not for them.

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