It is a subject that raises the hackles of even the mildest-mannered female academics. How their efforts to secure professorial and other senior academic jobs are all too often met with a patronising pat on the back or the promise of a "leadership course".
"Women interested in leadership roles are being sent on courses that tell us how to dress, but not how to manage," says Ruth Holliday, director of the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Leeds. "We are told how low to have our neckline, what shade of lipstick to buy and what types of clothes to wear.
"We are advised not to wear high heels, but to avoid looking frumpy and frigid. Our lipstick mustn't be too red, but we mustn't leave the house without any because it looks as if we haven't made an effort. The fact that women seem to take on board this advice shows how desperate they are to find a method for getting on."
Patronising? Certainly. But what if there's more to it? What if women are actually less suited for senior management roles - as they tend to be defined - than men? Perhaps it is down to a "female" approach to career that means that women fail to help themselves in the way that men tend to. Or, more controversially, might there be biological factors at play?
On one level, British universities appear to be at a pivotal point in their history. Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency suggest that at researcher and lecturer levels, women are poised to take over. In 2006-07, there were 23,590 female lecturers and 16,815 female researchers, an increase of 23 per cent in both cases compared with 2001-02. Contrast that with the figures for male lecturers (,340) and male researchers (19,925).
Projections done last year by John Pratt, emeritus professor of institutional studies at the University of East London, were based on Hesa figures for 2005-06. They showed that women are set to outnumber men at lecturer level by 2009 - and the 2006-07 figures seem to back up that forecast. The projections also claim that women could form a majority of all academics by about 2020.
"Women will break through - time and history are on their side," says Stephen Whitehead, senior lecturer in education and sociology at Keele University. "It's not going to happen overnight, but women have the skills, ability and determination. That is the trend, and I can't see what will stop it."
Already British universities and their staff are working to come to terms with a feminisation of the academy, although not everyone is ready to welcome it with open arms. "Men are realising that the old days of strong, powerful hierarchies led by a charismatic leader may soon be over," Whitehead says. "Many may resist."
It would appear that more "feminine" styles of management are already making themselves felt in the workplace. Female-friendly concepts such as flexible working and strong commitment to family-friendly policies (meetings being held in office hours, unpaid time off work for both sexes) have been tried - and found to work.
Not only do they make for a happy workforce, for both men and women, but evidence suggests that they make for a productive one, too. The University of York's chemistry department - winner of the Athena Swan gold award in 2007 for commitment to women in science - has adopted all these female-friendly policies. It also earned a grade of 5 in the most recent research assessment exercise.
Whitehead is optimistic: "This form of management will weed out traditional methods of promotion and assessment favoured by men. Instead of focusing on micro-management and targets, the focus will shift to a more nuanced, subtle and collegiate approach."
This style of management - whether one describes it as feminine or not - seems set to accelerate the pace of change, particularly when it comes to deciding who wins promotion.
Many women in academe would welcome this. In 2006-07, for example, women occupied 12,375 of the 33,650 senior lecturer jobs in Britain, according to Hesa data. At professorial level, they had just 2,885 out of 16,485 professorships. The latter figure represents a per cent increase over the year before, when 2,265 professorial positions were occupied by women. Nonetheless, the projection by Pratt showed that it would take until 2070 before female professors outnumbered their male colleagues.
That doesn't seem to affect Whitehead's conviction that change will soon sweep through. "I'm optimistic that what we are seeing is a global reordering of gender. A new gender order is emerging - albeit slowly - that is much more oriented towards the female presence," he says.
"Statistics show that in 20 years women will own 60 per cent of the wealth in the UK. If you ally that with the fact that women are moving into powerful areas of politics and the overwhelming evidence that women are out-performing men across all educational spheres, it becomes clear that the trend is going in only one direction."
The picture at some of the UK's newest universities appears to justify Whitehead's optimism. The University of Winchester has ten female professors and ten male professors; the Institute of Education has 30 male professors and 30 female; and the University of Worcester enjoys parity as well. Of course, the numbers are small and there may be historic and subject-related reasons for the high proportion of female professors at these institutions.
Notably, all three universities say that positive discrimination has not been part of their thinking when appointing women as professors. They describe the appointment process as "rigorous", based on "merit" and one where "no allowances are made". "Gender-blind" is a common refrain.
Failure to appoint more women professors in the past has been due to a basic "lack of fairness", says Tim Wheeler, vice-chancellor of the University of Chester, where the ratio of female to male professors is five to six.
"That unfairness is an historical anomaly that will get considerably better over the next couple of decades. We have broken the assumption that you have to be male and in your fifties to be a professor. It is now normal for women to become heads of departments, deans, professors and pro vice-chancellors."
As heartening as Wheeler's optimism is, it is not necessarily warranted, according to Diane Perrons, director of the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics.
"People select professors who are seen to have similar characteristics to themselves. They tend to pick on traits that are more masculine than feminine - even though that doesn't necessarily lead to a better university department," she says.
"Yes - there is equality at the lower levels of researcher or junior lecturer. But that doesn't translate into equality at the higher levels. Promotion still depends on research output rather than teaching ability - and that tends to favour men. If there is any feminisation of the sector, it doesn't reflect equality. It reflects a falling desirability of the sector."
Academic salaries are rising (Times Higher Education, 13 March), but Roger Kline, head of equality and employment rights at the University and College Union, says many other professions still tend to offer men higher earning potential.
"The profession is becoming feminised because men are moving into higher-paid jobs," he says. "It is not because equality has become in-built. Who would become an academic lawyer or accountant if you could earn so much more in the private sector?"
So, the relative success of women at less senior levels may be due in part to the fact that men have chosen jobs in what was until recently a booming private-sector economy over careers in higher education.
This is not the whole story, says Terry Marsh, director of the Women into Science, Engineering and Construction (Wise) campaign.
"Once there are 'too many women in the workplace', men start to avoid it. For many men, the job feels 'worthwhile' only if it is 'men only'. In engineering, the pendulum towards feminisation hasn't even begun to swing. Any so-called danger of a feminised workplace there is hypothetical.
"At the moment, the money within universities tends to flow towards men - towards their salaries, grants and job projects. It's gender budgeting. So let's stop worrying about positive discrimination in favour of women and just watch where the money flows. That will tell you a story."
For all his optimism, Whitehead also recognises the tenacity of "masculine" structures and systems. He says: "Women are adopting masculine forms of behaviour to survive. They are giving up their nuanced, subtle and collegiate approach and adopting a distant, unemotional, pseudo-objective approach to managing people in order to get on. This goes against learnt feminine behaviour."
University departments used to be "gentlemanly", confirms Holliday of the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Leeds. "Now it's macho. You have to be tough and hard and behave like you are in business. There is lots of testosterone flying around.
"This macho form of management has been imported from private business. As universities become more centralised, the old departments consisting of six academics (which used to appeal to women) are being replaced by schools, which are collections of departments with 60-odd staff.
"This tends to deter women from seeking places in management. What you end up with is seven deans - all men - competing financially for different sections of the university. It can get fraught and aggressive."
But for some academics, many of these points ring hollow. It is not institutional discrimination or archaic traditions that keep women out of the top professorial positions. It is women themselves, even down to female psychology and physiology.
One who thinks this is the case is Catherine Hakim, a senior research fellow in sociology at the London School of Economics (see box). As she puts it: "Biological difference can't determine everything. But biological differences can't be ignored."
She stresses that there is no biological difference between the sexes in terms of ability. But she believes that there is a difference in what she calls "dispersion": women are intellectually equal, but their abilities tend to span a middle ground. Men, on the other hand, enjoy an intelligence that has wider scope and breadth - "there are more male idiots and more male geniuses", Hakim notes succinctly. "This is relevant when explaining how men reach the top."
Men and women also have behavioural differences. It is not "historical unfairness" that has held women back, she says. It's attitude. Men get the best jobs because they "try harder, aim higher, apply for more promotions and ask for more salary increases".
Women, on the other hand, wait for things to come to them. "They don't feel like they have to chase after it. It is a serious sex differential in ambitions, motivation and drive," Hakim says.
"I think we should accept that there won't be a 50:50 division of professorships most of the time. In social sciences, you might get that ratio, but in other subjects - such as the sciences - we should stop beating our heads against the wall.
"I would estimate that only 20 to 30 per cent of women are careerist. Many of the women who complain bitterly (about the lack of women in top positions) are those who have not had children. They are not representative of those who did have children and are happy with the way things turned out."
Hakim has limited sympathy for women academics who take time off to have children and then use that as an excuse for their failure to progress up the career ladder. "The degree of flexibility that academics have is beyond the wildest dreams of people in the private sector. Academics have far more flexibility than any other profession in the whole of society. It even fits in with the school timetable. And while I can't argue against creches or flexible hours, I don't think they make a difference (to women's rate of success) at the end of the day."
Holliday agrees with some of Hakim's points. "It's true that men are more likely to seek status than women. And I agree that women still don't put themselves forward enough and worry about rejection."
But she believes that the biggest factor holding women back is intimately connected to biology - namely, childbirth and the resulting childcare issues. Academia does offer a degree of flexibility, but female academics with children still have to compete with men who also have children but who usually have a wife to look after them. These men are free to work in the evenings and at weekends. They can maintain their profiles by publishing and attending conferences.
To put it bluntly, Holliday says: "People in senior positions are either married men with children or childless women."
Marsh concurs: "Academic success depends on constant delivery. If you pause to have children, you get put back to the beginning. Very few universities nurture women and have good return rates.
"Compare that with private industry - BT Open Reach, for example - where there is a 99 per cent success rate in the return to work. Universities make a big deal about 'becoming businesses', but their practices are steeped in tradition. They should look to see how big business works outside the university arena. There has to be more than one way to have a career within academia. And at the moment that is not the case."
Marsh blames the university work culture for the failure of young mothers to thrive. "You are measured by your ability to work 50 hours a week. If you don't keep up your 50 hours a week, you are deemed to be 'less than'. If you say: 'I've done my 50 hours, I want to go home', other people fantasise that they are doing your work and you will be seen as awkward. On that basis, you will be denied a professorship.
"Universities need to remember that women are doing a societal function when they give birth. Universities have to accommodate women and realise that they are delivering our future to us. They need to work out how to make it work."
Julie Ashdown, senior policy adviser at the Equality Challenge Unit, agrees that universities ought to do more. "Universities need to look at recruitment and promotion and family-friendly policies," she says. "It's not about positive discrimination. It's about enabling women to get through the system by making it open and transparent and not tied up with the old boys' network," she says.
But, she adds, women could do more to help themselves. "Female academics need to do more networking. At the moment, they don't take it seriously. They should be more systematic about raising their profile - through writing particularly. They should force themselves to go to conferences, take speaking appointments, get on to boards and steer committees to raise their profile in substantial ways."
Holliday also believes that women could be more active in the workplace. The re-creation of a "sisterhood" would be a good start. "Sometimes when women get promoted they worry that if they support too many other women they'll be seen as having an emotional attachment, not a professional detachment. They tend to be critical rather than helpful towards each other," she suggests.
Women could also help themselves by putting themselves forwards instead of telling themselves that they'll do it "in a few years", Holliday says. "Ultimately, I would say never, ever, ever go part time - not if what you want is a good career."
It's a dilemma for women who want to have a career and have children. Although some manage to balance the two, many have given up trying. "A lot of the most successful academics at the London School of Economics are single women," Hakim says. "They've either never married or, if they were married, they are now divorced. The vast majority are without children and without partners."
Paul Walton, head of the award-winning chemistry department at York, says women should not have to choose between children and a career. Men can have both, so why can't women? He believes the onus should be on university management to create a culture that makes the best use of talent, regardless of a person's circumstances.
"I think the mistake that some departments make is that they emphasise quantity of work, not quality. They are too target focused. That is nonsense," he says. "The message needs to go out that there is no reason to be disadvantaged if you are working part time. Look at Dorothy Hodgkin. She won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and brought up three children.
"The trick is to be gender-blind. If you focus on attracting the best-quality people, regardless of gender, it will make a difference to the quality of output. But the starting point has to be with management."
Walton is certainly doing something right in his department. Women may or may not be as psychologically or physiologically predisposed to climbing career ladders in the way that men are. But, regardless of this, universities clearly owe it to their staff to create working environments that nurture and develop talents whatever their staff's gender, culture, creed or physical capacities.
As Walton says: "The success this department enjoys depends on the staff working here. If they feel understood and trusted, they will want to deliver good work.
"I say you work to live - you don't live to work."
HOW TO GET PROMOTION
- Take more risks
- Ask for a salary increase
- Chase opportunities, don't wait for them to come to you
- Don't be a martyr when it comes to hours
- Make sure your partner/husband shares in household and childcare tasks
- Don't talk to colleagues endlessly about your family
- Learn to network effectively
- Raise your profile by attending conferences, taking speaking appointments and sitting on boards and steering committees.
NATURE OR CULTURE: WHAT KEEPS WOMEN FROM THE TOP?
Sex differences mean equal opportunities will never produce equal outcomes
Catherine Hakim, senior research fellow in sociology, London School of Economics
"The assumption that equal opportunities will automatically produce equality of outcomes in the workforce is based on the idea that sex discrimination was the sole cause of women's lesser achievements in the public sphere - in the workplace, politics, sport and the arts.
"As all social scientists know, the world is far more complicated.
"We now know that there are no important sex differences in average ability, whether verbal or mathematical. However, recent studies show that males achieve the highest and lowest scores on all dimensions of ability and IQ because of the greater dispersion of male scores. Put simply, there are more male geniuses and more male idiots, while women tend to bunch round the average.
"But ability alone is not enough. Studies of exceptionally able people (the top 3 per cent of the population) find that there are still large sex differences in hours worked, in interests, values and lifestyle preferences, especially in preferences for a full-time homemaker career (or a part-time job) versus a demanding, highly paid career in the market economy.
"Similarly, studies of occupations with absolutely no sex discrimination and employing equal numbers of men and women, such as pharmacy, still find a per cent pay gap and large gender differences in hours worked, job choice and managerial status.
"Academic jobs are probably among the most family-friendly professional occupations. Yet based on a review of the most recent research findings, my preference theory shows that only one third of women, at best, compared with the majority of men, are the sort of achievement-oriented, competitive, work-centred people who give top priority to their career goals.
"About one third of women, at best, and a tiny fraction of men, give priority to family and private life. The majority of women, about two thirds, seek a balance between career and family life over the life cycle.
"There is nothing wrong with feminist wishful thinking that aspires to see 50 per cent of all professorships held by women. But as social scientists we have to stick to the research evidence, which shows that this is wishful thinking, not a predictable likelihood."
It's nonsense to say biology bars women from managing
Stephen Whitehead, senior lecturer in education and sociology, Keele University
"The idea that women are biologically programmed not to be managers and leaders is clearly a nonsense.
"The masses of qualitative and quantitative sociological and psychoanalytical research done internationally over the past three to four decades proves that.
"Cultural definitions of femininity and masculinity are immensely powerful. But that is not the same as saying that they are inevitable. They certainly do not predict gender behaviour in individuals.
"There are as many differences between women and between men as there are between women and men. Masculinities and femininities are multiple, fragile, contingent and in a process of constant change and adjustment. Women's and men's identity is a process, not an outcome.
"The biological 'answer' is no answer at all. It is a comfortable illusion that allows people to continue to believe that men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
"The world of work, management and organisations is undergoing a profound gender transformation, as is the world of personal and intimate relationships. Here are some facts to underline the point.
- In the European Union, since 2000, women have filled 6 million of the 8 million jobs created
- Women now outperform men from primary education through to PhD level
- 57 per cent of all graduates are women
- Across the EU, more than 40 per cent of company directors are women
- In the UK, women now own 50 per cent of the nation's wealth
- 88 per cent of British women expect equality in a relationship
- Women have accounted for more than 60 per cent of the growth in student enrolments at Australian universities in the past decade.
"This is not to ignore or lessen the impact of continuing inequalities between the sexes.
"But globalisation is pushing organisations into more meritocratic processes, even though many are still reluctant to adopt them. And with women now clearly the dominant gender in terms of educational achievement, it is only a matter of when, not if, they come to be the dominant gender in terms of leadership and management."