Leader - Women equal to the task

Undaunted by battles that can be gruelling and disheartening, women are ramping up the fight for equality in the academy

August 1, 2013

In a discussion on the Today programme this week, it was suggested that social media have given rise to a new wave of feminism, typified by the Everyday Sexism Project.

Twitter users may be familiar with the #everydaysexism hashtag, which is used to flag up incidents of “casual” sexism and makes clear both how ridiculous some men are (“At 11am a man in a van shouted ‘TITS!’ at me as I walked down the street”) and how plainly unfair the treatment of women in the workplace can be (“I worked at a car care products company as a designer. The men in the studio earned £7K more than me”).

Women have been treated just as unfairly by university employers: the most memorable exposé of this was by a group of female professors at Royal Holloway, University of London, who in 2007 decided to act on data published by Times Higher Education showing that their workplace was one of the most unequal in the sector. It was to prove a gruelling battle – destructive to working relations, stressful and time-consuming (the final judgment came in 2010) – but it was worth fighting.

Writing later in THE, Liz Schafer, professor of drama and theatre studies, said that when Royal Holloway was ordered to provide her and her fellow claimants with a list of all the male professors in their faculties who earned more than them, “I realised that I wasn’t just underpaid, I was being treated like a fool”.

In recent months, THE has been shining a light on gender equality in higher education.

Progress will surely bring benefits beyond campus walls. As so often, universities and academics are expected to set an example

Our Global Gender Index, published in May, revealed wide variations in the proportion of female academics in different countries: from 47.5 per cent in Turkey to just 12.7 per cent in Japan.

In June, a THE investigation of the UK’s senior academic ranks found that about a fifth of the professoriate were female, but in some universities the proportion was far lower: just six out of 77 professors employed by Aberystwyth University in 2011-12 were women, for example.

And our annual academic salary survey found that in 2011-12, average pay was £43,937 for women and £49,954 for men, while at the professorial level the figures were £72,375 and £77,192, respectively.

Clearly Schafer and Co. are not an isolated case, and the battles still being fought by female scholars abound in our feature this week on a new edited volume, Mothers in Academia. However, there are some encouraging signs, as a leaf through the rest of this week’s THE will attest: the widespread praise for Madeleine Atkins as the first female chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England; the announcement of a “diversity fund” at the University of Oxford; and the Athena SWAN scheme taking flight into new disciplines.

We also report on a great example of “direct action” to improve the way that female scientists are represented on Wikipedia via an organised “edit-a-thon”. All are heartening, particularly because progress will surely bring benefits beyond campus walls. As so often, universities and academics are expected to set an example to society at large.

As Schafer said of her legal battle: “Tribunal cases have a huge dropout rate because it is so hard to keep going…I kept thinking, ‘If women professors can’t keep going, who can?’”


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