9.2% of professors are women

May 28, 1999

... But that still means that 90.8 per cent are men. So are universities discriminating against women? Helen Hague reports on statistics published today

BEYOND THE GLASS CEILING: FORTY WOMEN WHOSE IDEAS SHAPE THE MODERN WORLD. Manchester University Press - THES, Pounds 10.99, available from the marketing department, The THES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY (Tel: 0171-782 3395)

The number of women professors is on the increase, but those determined to see radical change should not hold their breath. Only 9.2 per cent of professorships in British universities are held by women, according to the latest evidence compiled for The THES on women's academic career prospects - a 1.1 percentage point increase on the previous year's total.

In 1995 there were 474 female professors, holding 6.7 per cent of all university chairs. By 1998, according to this latest evidence, there were 907 - 195 more than the previous year. The percentage of women in all academic grades nudged up from 32.9 per cent in 1997 to 33.8 per cent in 1998. At senior lecturer and researcher level, where many of the professors of tomorrow are likely to be recruited, the percentage of women has edged up by 1 percentage point to 21.1.

Responses to the news that women professors still account for under 10 per cent of those in post were predictable. Female academics variously described the figures as "pathetic", "shameful" and "lamentable".

The delayed Bett committee of inquiry into academic pay and conditions should report next month. It is expected to further expose inequalities on British campuses - even if women get top jobs they tend to be paid less. In fact, leaks from the Bett inquiry suggest that women are being systematically underpaid across academic, administrative and manual grades, and that it will cost Pounds 400 million to bring women's pay into line with that of their male counterparts.

When Ruth Lister left her job as director of the Child Poverty Action Group 12 years ago to become a professor at Bradford University, she found the lack of women in top jobs "a terrible shock". Lister, now at Loughborough University, recalls: "I had this naive notion that universities were liberal institutions and women would have their equal place. In the voluntary sector many key organisations are led by women, so it was a shock to realise how male dominated universities were, and still are."

Lister believes it would now be harder for someone with her track record to make a career switch into the university sector, because of the influence the research assessment exercise exerts over recruitment and promotion decisions. "I moved into the sector before the RAE became such a fetish. It would be much more risky to appoint someone like me these days. Now you need to come with your RAE output established, as opposed to with some vague potential."

In fact the competitive nature of the RAE and the insistence on serial publications as a prerequisite for promotion is seen as an obstacle for women in all subjects. Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution and professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, sketches the problem with a description of an "average" woman scientist: "Sadly, she often takes a subordinate role to her partner in career terms. She might have had time out to have children and therefore hasn't published as much as one would have expected for a man of her age. She is not necessarily assertive, perhaps underachieving and underambitious and is wary of applying for research grants."

Greenfield believes the research councils could do more in terms of ring-fencing grants for women returning to work after having children. They could also encourage women to apply in the first place. In physical sciences, for instance, only about half the women eligible for research grants bother to apply. "Unlike being a medic or a spot-welder, you can't just come back and pick up being an academic scientist where you left off. I think there should be a much more aggressive initiative from the research councils."

Greenfield, like many women professors, is childless. All the anecdotal evidence is that big families and academic success for women do not seem to mix. It is startling how few women professors have children - or had a child early and then advanced their career later. Joni Lovenduski, professor of politics at Southampton University, had her only child before her first degree. Subverting a pernicious stereotype, she says fathers of small children are far more likely than mothers to leave work early and disrupt the timetable.

Perhaps as a result of their child-care responsibilities women are also more likely to get trapped in poorly paid, short-term contracts than men. One woman academic at Leeds University, who has taken a decade to work her way up on a succession of short-term contracts from research assistant to research fellow, says: "Universities have really got to wake up and start providing proper jobs. These contracts bring long-term insecurity and women are more likely to have them." Using figures from her own university, where 82 per cent of male academics are on permanent contracts compared with 68 per cent of women, she has warned an MP that "discrimination against women is occurring".

Barbara Bagilhole, senior lecturer in social policy at Loughborough, has carried out qualitative research into why women are underachieving. She identifies both structural and cultural factors - recruitment, selection and the persistence in old universities of "nods and winks" and old boys' networks when making appointments. Women can feel very isolated, she says.

One female science lecturer had to have six months off after she was targeted by a bully, undermined and referred to in such insulting terms that students complained to university authorities. She was said to be "dimensionally challenged" and likened to the cow in The Magic Roundabout.

She is now back and the bully has been given a written warning.

She says the issue of harassment is relevant to the debate on why there are so few women in top positions. "If you're so busy (dealing with) being undermined, you haven't got the energy to give the output that might get you recognition."

The Women Law Professors Network was set up last May as a response to the failure to include a single woman law teacher on the Quality Assurance Agency's law benchmarking panel. It now represents 95 per cent of women law professors in the UK.

Celia Wells, professor of law at Cardiff and a leading member of the network, is far from alone in hoping that the Bett inquiry will unleash a drive for change that will boost women's pay and promotion prospects. "Things won't get better until the extent of the problem is acknowledged. With the Bett inquiry this debate is very much of the moment. We are on the verge of people recognising that equal opportunities policies need some real push behind them. It's a bit like the truth commission in South Africa. People have got to admit how bad it is, then we can move on."

Or, as Clare McGlynn, who lectures in law at Newcastle, puts it: "Things are not going to change by osmosis. We need a change in the culture that translates to women getting the promotions they deserve. They can no longer be seen as handmaidens facilitating the work of serious scholars who happen to be men."

Proportion of female professors by subject 1997-98

Education 20.1%

Languages 15.9%

Medicine, dentistry and health (including nursing) 13.1%

Arts subjects (other than languages) 11.9%

Administrative, business and social studies 10.7%

Administration and central services 9.7%

Agriculture, forestry and veterinary science 5.6%

Architecture, built environment & planning 5.6%

Biological, mathematical and physical sciences 4.0%

Academic services 2.9%

Engineering and technology 2.1%

Grand Total 9.2%

There are no female professors in civil engineering, and although there has been a 200 per cent increase in chemistry this just means the one female chemistry professor in post in 1997 now has two counterparts at other universities. In general science 100 per cent of professorships are held by women, but as there is only one such professorship, it would be premature to start popping the champagne corks. But there have been gains. In information technology 12.1 per cent of professors are women compared with 7.9 per cent last year. In culture and media studies 13.3 per cent of professorships are held by women, compared with 16.1 per cent in art and design and 10.9 per cent in humanities.

Hesa cannot accept responsibility for conclusions derived from third-party data

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