The struggle for equality

June 6, 1997

The latest figures show that 8 per cent of British professors are women, with older universities among the worst offenders. Sian Griffiths sorts the bad from the slightly better

Ann Chant, head of the Opportunity 2000 campaign to improve the prospects of working women, last week singled out universities as under-performing employers. They had, she said, signally failed to make enough progress in promoting women.

"In some areas there's been a big shift," said Chant, in The Guardian, "but in others there has not been enough progress - universities, for example - which sends a bad message to the next generation."

The latest statistics behind Chant's complaint were compiled this week for The THES by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. They show that in the most recent year for which figures are available only 8 per cent of professors in the United Kingdom were women, despite the fact that females take up half the places on most university degree courses. This is a slight increase from 1994-95's total of 7.3 per cent, but, as Chant says, scarcely indicates "enough progress".

Sending a particularly bad message to the next generation is the University of Plymouth, with only one female professor compared to 43 men at the same rank, it is bottom of our league - a position occupied last year by the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

The table opposite highlights glaring disparities between universities. Again two new universities are at the top - South Bank and Oxford Brookes, where about one in three professors are women. (This is only the second year HESA has broken the figures down by institution).

Gerald Bernbaum, vice chancellor at South Bank, said that although the university did not have a policy of positive discrimination, it had "picked up" some "able women who are not so readily rewarded elsewhere and take the opportunity to apply outside their own institutions".

Well below average, however, are both Oxford and Cambridge - where women academics have been campaigning for several years to improve promotion prospects.

Oxford has just 15 women professors out of a total of 232 (6.5 per cent); Cambridge has 13 out of 247 (5.3 per cent).

Last year Oxford created a number of new chairs, some of which women were appointed to, but because the promotion exercise did not include a salary rise, these chairs do not appear in the HESA table, which is calculated on salaries.

The university salary of Susan Greenfield, one of last year's professorial appointments, is just Pounds 30,000.

Not one of the Welsh university colleges figured in the top half of the table. Lowest was the University of Wales College of Medicine, with two women professors out of 53. Perhaps this should not be too surprising.

If the proportion of women professors nationally is disappointingly low, it is disastrous in science subjects - in 1995-96 1.4 per cent of the UK's professors in engineering and technology were women (14 out of 981) and there were no women professors at all in agriculture.

Women professors figured most frequently in librarianship studies (29.4 per cent), subjects allied to medicine (19.6 per cent) and education (18.8 per cent).

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