Women are still 15% cheaper

September 1, 2006

Despite being very well represented on campus, women are being short-changed in the workplace, says Anna Fazackerley

When English and drama tutor Peter Lewis looks out across the lecture theatre at Loughborough University, he is faced with a sea of female students. Only one third of students on his course are men - still unusually high compared with other universities. Lewis, who is an admissions tutor, finds the situation disconcerting. "Those who banged on about equal opportunities for women, when I made the point that there was an imbalance, said it didn't matter. I find the hypocrisy depressing," he says.

One could argue that English and drama have always attracted women. But the flood of female applicants is not confined to the "softer" arts subjects. Medicine and law, once steadfastly male domains, now have more female students than male.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, there were 584,655 female full-time home students last year, compared with 450,815 males. There were significantly more women returning to higher education as mature students and more studying part time, suggesting that they are fitting university around their working and family lives.

On the surface, at least, women are taking over, and this year's A-level results confirm the trend. Yet dig deeper and the situation looks more complicated. Some academics might be getting hot under the collar about a feminised future where coffee shops dominate campus and tutorials are all talk of emotions, but others warn that universities are not empowering women at all.

"I would say that conditions are worse for women than they used to be," says Jill Lebihan, principal lecturer in English at Sheffield Hallam. "I met a graduate of the women's studies programme I used to run and she told me she never tells people what her first degree was in because it counts against her. Feminist is a filthy word now."

In terms of the curriculum, Lebihan concedes that some things have changed for the better - female authors make it on to the mandatory reading lists, rather than just the optional ones. But she finds it frustrating that she sees none of the revolutionary zeal that drove many female students in the past. "The assumption among students is that women are not discriminated against. I find that incredibly shocking. They think women have equal pay," she exclaims. "They see the increasing numbers of female academics and feel reassured, but they don't realise that most are hourly paid or on short-term contracts. They have no idea about the hierarchy."

While girls consistently outperform boys at school, at degree level the balance shifts. Men are still more likely to come out clutching first-class degrees than women. Lebihan argues that this is because today's female students are less prepared to take a risk and be original. "They are used to doing exactly what their teachers ask them to do, and that is what is rewarded in schools. But at degree level we don't reward conventional thinking, and girls find it much harder to make that leap," she says.

She adds that young women's marks often go down the drain in the second year. "The women move in with men and they start doing all the housework. It's depressing."

Many academics acknowledge that male and female students approach learning differently. But this does not necessarily mean that the rise in the number of female students is shaping the style of teaching in universities. Carol Dyhouse, an expert on gender and education at Sussex University, says: "Women are more into discussion and much better at talking in groups. Instead of trying to beat their neighbour down, they make spaces." But as vice-chancellors are letting in more and more students to balance the books and hit government targets, the opportunities for intimate tutorials are shrinking. "Small group discussion just isn't typical of university teaching anymore," she says.

Similarly, women students are often said to benefit from the prevalence of coursework on modern university curricula. This is one explanation for their success at school too: coursework has driven out exams and girls are more likely to spend time doing their coursework properly because, on the whole, they are more conscientious than boys. Yet Dyhouse predicts that coursework may have had its day. "With the anxiety about online plagiarism I wonder if we will have to revert to exams," she says.

Laboratories and student bars may not have been painted pink, but inevitably universities have had to rethink campuses to some degree. They have improved childcare facilities, although the National Union of Students says that most are still not good enough. And universities have thought hard about how to address security issues, such as better lighting and emergency phones in secluded places.

But Dyhouse argues that, in many ways, women now live like men on campus, drinking too much and enjoying total independence. "There used to be different disciplinary rules for girls before the 1960s," she points out. "They weren't allowed to live in unsupervised lodgings, their dress was sometimes regulated. At Reading University, the vice-chancellor was said to become hysterical if they didn't wear stockings."

She explains that such behaviour was less about sexism than about a fear of students getting pregnant, with universities supposed to be in loco parentis. "All that changed when the contraceptive pill came in. University authorities don't police the behaviour of women separately from men anymore," she adds. Yet some academics argue that nothing that happens on campus matters if women are still banging their heads on a glass ceiling in the world of work after they graduate.

Medicine is a case in point. Medical schools have been filling up with women for the past two decades, but only 25per cent of hospital consultants are female, dropping to 4per cent for consultant surgeons. There is a marked underrepresentation of women in academic medicine, too. Anita Holdcroft, a consultant anaesthetist at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and a reader at Imperial College London, says: "Last year, only 10 per cent of clinical academics were women. We know that some medical schools have no female professors. And there are only two female heads of medical schools."

She argues that the health system needs to accept that women want to organise their careers differently from men. "There has to be a way of getting back into the system after a career break. The Government has recently removed funding for people trying to return. That seems ridiculous. Why bother to spend all that money training women if they won't help them come back in?"

Kitty Mohan, a junior doctor at St Helier Hospital, agrees. All around her she is seeing women doctors in their late twenties and thirties starting to worry about having a family. "Regardless of the great progress that has been made, as a woman in medicine you are still faced with a fundamental choice: do you want a family or to get to the forefront in your career?" she says.

Medicine is not an isolated example. Kat Stark, executive women's officer at the NUS, is angry that even in their first year in the workplace women graduates are experiencing a pay gap of 15per cent compared with their male counterparts. "It is fantastic that so many women are coming to university and doing well," she explains. "But we need to be very careful about how we interpret those statistics. Women have a long way to go. We can't throw in the towel yet."

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