Ethnic minority and female professors

April 7, 2000

...this is the tiny proportion of ethnic minority and female professors employed in Britain's universities. Helen Hague reports on how the statistics published today could help in the battle against inequality in higher education.

Figures published by The THES today confirm that women and ethnic minorities are still under-represented in top academic jobs. Only 9.8 per cent of professorships are held by women and 2.3 per cent by ethnic minorities, according to data compiled by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

The THES table (far right), which ranks universities by their proportion of female and ethnic minority professors, reveals striking differences among institutions. At the University of East London, women hold 37.5 per cent of professorships, at South Bank University, 30.9 per cent. But Bradford has only 3.4 per cent female professors, and the University of Salford only 2.1 per cent.

This is the first time that data relating to the ethnicity of staff at individual universities have been published. Again the results seem to illustrate substantial differences between institutions, although in many instances, academics were reluctant to disclose their ethnic origins. For example, at Cambridge, where only 3.8 per cent of professors are recorded as non-white, 40 per cent of respondents refused to disclose their ethnicity. At Durham, the situation is more clear-cut: of 123 professors, all gave their ethnic origin and not one was non-white. However, Hesa's data does not include professors who are foreign nationals.

The publication of the table comes as government impatience mounts over universities' failure to address their "deplorable" employment and promotion records on race and gender. It also comes on the eve of national talks between university and college employers and higher education trade unions.

The government is considering monitoring targets for the recruitment and promotion of staff to ensure that university managements take equality seriously.

This week, lecturers' union Natfhe stepped up its campaign to force change. It released its own subject-by-subject survey, which showed that female academics are being paid as much as Pounds 8,000 less than men in the same jobs. Natfhe hopes that Monday's talks will result in a national agreement to end such discrimination.

The THES's subject table (right) confirms that there are "male-friendly" subjects. Only 2.7 per cent of professors in engineering are women, for example, although the subject has the highest percentage of ethnic minority professors.

Today's statistics jar with universities' desire to be seen as enlightened liberal institutions. There are still only 1,007 female professors. This is9.8 per cent of the professoriate - a rise of only six-tenths of a percentage point on the previous year. There are marked national disparities, too, with 10.2 per cent of professorships held by women in England, 9.8 per cent in Northern Ireland, 8.5 per cent in Scotland and 7.7 per cent in Wales.

Last year, two influential reports drew attention to the need for diversity among staff in the sector: the Macpherson inquiry into the death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence and the Bett inquiry's findings on pay disparities based on gender. Macpherson made it "incumbent on every institution to examine its policies and practices and guard against disadvantaging any section of our communities".

Many academics could benefit from a dose of self-scrutiny, says Celia Wells, professor of law at Cardiff and a member of the Women Law Professor's Network. She still has male colleagues in her department who say there is not a problem. "The same people who teach students about the unrepresentativeness of magistrates or the judiciary are unwilling to turn a similar spotlight on themselves," she says.

The argument, often advanced by white males, that it is "just a matter of time" is deeply flawed, she says. "Lots more work has to be done identifying barriers to equal opportunity. It is not just overt discrimination that can create feelings of alienation and sap confidence. Women, disabled people and those from ethnic minorities suffer if they are excluded from informal networks."

Lucy Wyatt worked her way up from lecturer to professor of applied mathematics over 11 years at Sheffield University. She was appointed six months ago and is the only female professor in the department.

Wyatt is concerned that policies designed to promote equal opportunities can be easily undermined. "We've got a policy of advertising jobs, but the university chooses from time to time to ignore this and recruit people to chairs with no advertisements. Targeting individuals (in this way) can perpetuate old-boy networks I prejudices start to operate; other potential candidates don't get a look in."

Heidi Mirza is one of three black, female professors at Middlesex University. She believes that despite the "white heat" about institutional racism generated by the Macpherson inquiry, not a lot has happened. "We are looking for quick political solutions to bring about diversity, but what is needed is committed structural change."

Stuart Hall, emeritus professor at the Open University, believes target-setting and holding institutions to account would aid diversity in universities. He argues that a statutory commitment to race and gender equality, carrying legal penalties for failure, could yield results, but with the electoral focus on schools and the health service, he doubts whether it is a government priority.

Hall comments wryly on the prime minister's enthusiasm for talking up Britishness. "The prime minister appears to have stumbled over it because devolution isn't working to plan. His list (of definitive British qualities) seems divorced from the multicultural debate, flagging up largely traditional English values of tolerance and fairness. It was strangely insensitive to the complexities and diversities of Britain now," Hall says.

If Monday's talks between employers and unions do result in a national agreement that universities will set targets for addressing inequalities among their staff, a decade down the line we could see a fairer share of top academic jobs going to women and members of ethnic minorities.

Tom Wilson, head of Natfhe's universities division, says: "We would regard it as a complete failure if the agreement does not result in that kind of progress."

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