How to make the old dinosaurs sing and dance to the tune and dance to the tune of the new-girl network

October 26, 2001

Gender barriers are denying many women promotion in academia. Helen Hague asks what is being done?

It is really quite touching. A 56-year-old male professor is exasperated by atalented female staff member's reluctance to put herself forward for promotion. "I had almost to twist her arm off. She did not want to be seen as pushy." Contrast this with the effortlessly matter-of-fact way a 43-year-old male senior lecturer recounts how he secured his post. "I was approached by the university... so it is just serendipity really... there was a sort of third-person contact."

The quotes, taken from an investigation into patriarchal support systems and male patronage in universities, expose how male networking and clubbability and female reluctance for self-promotion bolster the gender divide in appointments. Barbara Bagilhole, reader in equal opportunities in social policy at Loughborough University, and researcher Jackie Goode made the study. They say it shows women's "misguided faith in the idea that high-quality work and demonstrated commitment would be recognised and rewarded" and could explain why women doing essentially the same job as men get paid at least 15 per cent less - a recent report from lecturers' union Natfhe shows it would cost £130 million to bridge the pay divide. Added to this is women's widely held perception that they receive less encouragement from their institutions to make grant applications. Indeed, half of women are on short-term contracts and so ineligible to apply. Then there are career breaks to have children and the challenge of juggling childcare responsibilities with attempting to amass a career-boosting research portfolio.

The government has recognised the structural and gender barriers that deny women promotion and, increasingly, the security of a full-time post and has warned the sector to try harder. Opportunity 2000 singled out universities as "under-performing employers" that had "signally failed to make enough progress in promoting women - which sends a bad message to the next generation". The fledgling Equality Challenge Unit is seen as the last voluntary shot at getting universities to improve career and personnel-management practice skewed by gender inequalities.

Data published today by the Higher Education Statistics Agency show the scale of the problem. Despite the fact that women make up more than half of undergraduate students, they hold just 12 per cent of professorships and 24 per cent of senior lectureships. Although this is an improvement on figures published last year, when only about 10 per cent of professors were women, the picture becomes even more stark when broken down by subject. In mathematics, for instance, there are only ten women professors, compared with 470 men. Even in social studies, only 200 professors are female, compared with 1,160 men, and in languages - an area that, according to evolutionary theorists, women excel at - the ratio is 90 to 380. Indeed, the only subject in which women professors predominate is nursing and paramedic studies and then only by 90 to 70.

Some are optimistic that the increasing number of women going into academia will bring change, but Susan Bassnett, pro vice-chancellor at Warwick University, says this may be more a sign that poor pay and low status are prompting more men to pursue more lucrative careers outside. She fears that universities could face a crisis in attracting sufficiently qualified staff if these twin problems are not addressed soon - leaving the sector facing the kind of recruitment crisis now hitting schools.

Much faith is put in the spread of good practice to shake out discriminatory behaviour, but this needs to be properly audited to ensure reality does not fall short of rhetoric. At Queen's University, Belfast, only 9 per cent of professorships are held by women. Vice-chancellor Sir George Bain has made gender equality a top priority, spurred in part by the business case for retaining talented women. Conferring with a small band of senior women, he sanctioned a university-wide gender initiative to make staff feel motivated, valued and committed to the university' equality goals.

A series of "listening seminars" was held early last year and drew feedback from almost 600 women. Promotion was the top concern - above child care even. A central fund for maternity cover has since been set up, and the university has overhauled appraisals, promotions and professional banding.

Margaret Mullett, director of the ten-year gender initiative, says the vice-chancellor's leadership and commitment has enthused high-ranking men. "It was great watching those old dinosaurs dance - people you never thought were new men - appearing to be so favourable and supportive." How-ever, the university has just appointed three pro vice-chancellors - all men.

Warwick University, among the first universities to set up a workplace creche in the 1970s, is involved with Coventry University in the production of a Higher Education Funding Council for England-funded equal opportunities drama video on fostering cultural change.

Bassnett, one of the few women to have reached a top position in academia, believes women, often adept at multi-tasking, are ideally suited to management posts. This summer she hosted a lunch for senior women to celebrate, network and bond. The need for mentoring and more assertiveness training emerged as strong themes, alongside addressing the care needs of elderly parents. Unexpectedly, a number of senior women confided that they felt totally unsupported by younger women. Mentoring on gender lines will be top of the agenda for the next meeting.

Also only 9 per cent of the professorships at Warwick - 20 posts - are held by women, but an equal opportunities committee reporting directly to the senate has just been set up. Assertiveness courses to encourage women to "access power" and hone public speaking skills are already on offer.

When institutions do not change of their own accord, however, the only route is the legal one. Lorna Chessum received £10,000 compensation from De Montfort University because she was appointed on the bottom of the senior lecturer pay scale in the School of Education - receiving £6,000 less than a similarly qualified male colleague. The case hinged on a male colleague telling her his salary details. Chessum advises women not to take action unless they are confident of winning and to be "emotionally prepared" for the flak.

Although she has recently been promoted and the university has agreed to review its equal opportunities policy, she says: "It is just no good individuals fighting case by gruelling case. The process puts a lot of people off."

Maggie Torres, a single parent, was not so successful. She tried to claim redundancy after her courses in Spanish history were cut by the University of North London. Although she had worked there for 11 years, she had been employed on an hourly rate, never earning more than £5,500 a year for courses she believed amounted to half of a lecturer's post. When that failed she then explored using the Sex Discrimination Act to highlight the difficulties single-parent women face in academia. But, as she could not find a direct comparator, lawyers told her she had little chance of winning. She reluctantly dropped the case. "I could probably have been a senior lecturer by now if I'd had a regular job. But, because I was hourly paid, I wasn't even on the ladder," she says. She is now on a £20,000 yearly contract at Goldsmiths College.

Celia Wells, professor of law at Cardiff University, says many academics "continue to believe in the liberal rhetoric of their own institutions" despite the reality of data on pay and promotion, their own experience of macho culture and the fact that research opportunities in many departments are dependent on patronage. She urges the need for fair and transparent pay systems that will allow those who feel they are being unfairly treated to lodge a claim under equal pay legislation.

For Bagilhole, the solution lies in women developing "a new-girl network" analogous to the old-boy network.

"Women must not be fooled by the image of an individualistic academic career sold by many men in the academy," she cautions.

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