The leaders

May 28, 1999

It should hardly be surprising that a new university - the University of East London - comes out near the top of the league in appointing women professors.

This is one area where new universities tend to trounce the old. At East London, figures show that a third of its professorships are held by women. But as recently as 1995 just one female professor was in place.

Anne Wooton, one of three female psychology professors, has been teaching at the university for 20 years and welcomes the recent advances for women, including the promotion of two female pro-vice- chancellors.

She suspects two factors have helped. "First, the subjects the university teaches - cultural studies, art and design - and the way they are taught are likely to attract good women. Second, because it's a fairly unprestigious university women can get a step on the ladder more easily than they can in places where the boys are elbowing their way in."

Kerry Hamilton (above) became the first woman professor of transport in Britain when UEL appointed her in 1998. Crucially, in a move that says much about UEL, she is located in the social sciences faculty. Her work explores the impact of transport policy on people. Transport is often placed in civil engineering or urban studies departments. "This university had the imagination to locate the post in a more appropriate faculty."

Nonetheless, there are caveats. One female academic expressed scepticism about UEL being at the cutting edge of equal opportunities. "It might look good now, but there is total inertia about creating an infrastructure that will ensure this continues. Although women are being promoted within individual departments there is no university-wide policy," she says.

And Wooton is worried about the impact of the longer hours every academic is having to work in the late 1990s. "The academic world is getting much busier and much less family friendly. Everybody's working longer hours and if you have time out to bring up a family it can be very difficult to get back in - and gain promotion."

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