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May 4, 2007

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'The balance of women on our senior governing committee is persistently low. How could the gender duty be used to address this?'

n A spokesperson for the University and College Union says: "It is important to note that the gender equality duty (GED) aims to improve services, policies and practices for men and women and is not focused on any particular disadvantaged group. Once priorities for action have been set, certain groups might be targeted, but the aim at the outset is not to focus on any one group over another or to make assumptions about who should be the priority group. The duty is about taking steps to promote gender equality for all.

"But, the lack of progression of women to senior management and senior academic posts is one of many long-established concerns and there has not yet been enough concerted action to embed gender equality into education systems and structures.

"The GED should change that, but written policies on their own will not be enough to deliver the real change to services, policies and practices that the GED is intended to deliver. The focus is supposed to be on outcomes, not on documents and procedures.

"It is up to each education body to look at national and local evidence and consult stakeholders (including trade unions) to set objectives. And only individual bodies can decide what actions they can take within three years to make a difference and help meet their objectives. But there are clear areas within the post-16 education sector where the GED is expected to achieve change. An institution with deeply unequal pay and employment practices is unlikely to promote greater equality for its users and in its services. Education bodies should be looking at their employment role as well as at the services they provide, when setting their gender equality objectives.

"Issues to consider for employment-related gender equality objectives will include: steps to ensure equal representation of women in decision-making and policy structures; steps to ensure equal pay; steps to provide flexible work options such as part-time work for women and men; and steps to properly reward women working in the sector at all levels.

"More information and guidance can be found on the Equal Opportunities Commission's website at: http:///www.eoc.org.uk "

A spokesperson for the Equality Challenge Unit says:

"Institutions should be aware that under the Gender Equality Duty there is a legal requirement to assess for gender inequality across the whole institution. This includes the assessment of the gender balance on the senior governing committees as well as on informal committees that determine so much of the day-to-day running of universities and colleges.

"The statutory code of practice on the gender duty states that organisations that 'do not already have data might look at collecting information on the... balance of women and men in key decision-making bodies' and that 'consultation will be especially important where one sex is underrepresented in the formal decision-making processes of the public authority'.

"At present, appointment practices to committees vary from institution to institution. Owing to these varied means of appointment, institutions may wish to examine and assess each separate appointment process from a perspective of gender equality. The gender duty builds in an element of proportionality to the process: the longer the term and the more significant and prestigious the role, so accordingly the more rigorous and objective the appointment process should be.

"Practical ideas for addressing any imbalance could include: identifying suitable women who could receive training in participation on selection committees; providing development opportunities for people aspiring to be managers and actively recommending these to appropriate female staff; monitoring and reporting on the gender balance on senior committees and encouraging senior management to acknowledge this as an area for focus; and when setting the time for committee meetings, taking into consideration those members who may be working part time or who may require family-friendly hours."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, Research Councils UK and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk  

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