Letter: Lack of places produces bias

November 2, 2001

Addressing gender barriers to career advancement within higher education is a complex issue, but Helen Hague's article ("How to make the old dinosaurs sing and dance to the tune of the new-girl network", THES , October 26) brings little clarity to the problem and suggests some inappropriate solutions.

The first point to recognise is that there are too few promotional places to be filled and that large numbers of suitably qualified people, men and women, are denied career advancement. Second, while there is a gender difference in relation to those who do secure one of these limited places, to explain this we need to examine the typical career trajectories of men and women.

The most important barrier to the advancement of female careers in higher education is the break taken from employment to care for children or elderly parents. Ultimately, addressing this issue lies largely beyond any institution or sector unless there is a radical change to the criteria for promotion. Such changes would need to be fair and apply to men and women.

When it comes to promotional and resource opportunities, there will be perhaps numerous examples of discrimination and inequity. But to suggest that these are primarily gender-based is to misread the operation of patronage and deflect us away from achieving a more equitable system for all.

The solution here lies in the introduction of open and transparent systems operating to explicit criteria that are then monitored and audited. Ideas such as those promoted by Hague, of an effective informal "new-girl network" challenging its male equivalent, are neither new as a practice nor particularly progressive in equal opportunities.

Finally, it may well be that female academics feel less confident about seeking personal advancement. My experience would suggest that many able male academics suffer the same doubts and uncertainties. Thus in a sector that appears to give low priority to staff development, initiatives of the kind suggested, such as mentoring, developing public speaking skills, even assertiveness training, should again be available to all.

In one initiative in my own institution, the University of the West of England, a university-wide system of promotional opportunities for senior academics, in addition to those operating at faculty level, was introduced some five years ago. Appointment panels are made up of representatives from the directorate and peers drawn from the pool of academics across the university at the level sought by the applicants.

Despite any gender imbalance in the appointments panel, each year has seen an increase in the number of female applicants and, of those, women have done proportionally better than men.

Chris Miller
Natfhe branch negotiating secretary
University of the West of England

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