Leader: What's sex got to do with it?

That women fail to reach the top in numbers is not a consequence of biology but of bigotry, which all in the academy must fight

September 30, 2010

It is a startlingly revealing anecdote. Shortly after neurobiologist Ben Barres had a female-to-male sex change, a male colleague was heard praising his work while simultaneously disparaging that of his "sister", Barbara. Barbara was in fact Barres' former female self.

As Amanda Goodall, a research Fellow at the University of Warwick, shows in our cover story, Barres has helped to demolish any notion that there are innate differences between the sexes that can explain the glaring under-representation of women in world science.

Such ideas have lingered stubbornly, with even sources at the top-most levels lending them credence, viz. former Harvard University president Larry Summers. In a 2005 speech, he notoriously explained the dearth of women in science by suggesting that there was a "different availability of aptitude at the high end".

As the evidence against that myth mounts (there's more in our Book of the Week, Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender), that leaves us with an uglier explanation for the problem - outright prejudice of the kind that Barres experienced in his early career as a female scientist.

The statistics for the wider academy are stark. Across the European Union countries, among PhD graduates, women outnumber or equal men in almost all subjects except the sciences and engineering; women fill 44 per cent of posts at lecturer level but occupy only 18 per cent of professorial chairs; and only 9 per cent of universities have a female head.

Structural issues play a part: bureaucratic demands that soak up office time fall disproportionately to women; short-term contracts are prevalent in science; and career breaks for childbirth interrupt research output. These issues must be tackled, but it seems that the deeper problem is one of attitude.

The unpleasant truth is that higher education, and science in particular, remains too much of an old boys' club.

At the Universities UK meeting earlier this month, the ranks of white, greying, middle-aged men were a pretty sorry sight. There were some exceptions: Pamela Gillies, the vice-chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University, whose academic excellence in public health earned her a prestigious spell at Harvard University; and Louise Richardson, a world-leading expert on terrorism, poached from Harvard to become the first woman to lead Scotland's oldest university, St Andrews. There are many other examples of amazing women who have reached the heights - not least UUK's own chief executive, Nicola Dandridge - but nowhere near enough.

Schemes such as the Athena SWAN Charter, which recognises best practice in tackling the under-representation of women in science, are a good start. But it is shameful that only 48 universities and research institutes have joined since its inception in 2005. For fixing the gender balance must be a joint effort, as the SWAN scheme makes clear: "to address gender inequalities requires commitment and action from everyone, at all levels of the organisation". It "requires changing cultures and attitudes across the organisation".

Dr Goodall's list of tips for young women seeking to make their way into senior research careers is practical, sensible and sound. But one stands out: "Speak out when things are not right," she writes. Of course, that is a duty not just for women, but for everyone in the academy, from the lowest level to the highest.

phil.baty@tsleducation.com.

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