Bottom line on chairs

November 17, 1995

Helena Kennedy's excellent article raises some crucial issues pertinent to the invisibility of women in senior university posts.

The stock response of many of the male academics who continue to populate the higher echelons of universities is that it is largely a matter of time before all those bright young women whom they have appointed to lectureships will naturally move on up into senior posts and chairs, so righting the shameful statistic that 5 per cent of United Kingdom professorial chairs are held by women.

As Helena Kennedy points out as she probes the many different conscious and unconscious manifestations of prejudice against the feminine within academe, there is far more to it than this.

However an additional factor has emerged in the past year or so that many women academics feel will exacerbate existing inequalities in senior posts - the effects, when the dust and hysteria die down, of the Research Assessment Exercise-inspired transfer market in male academics.

Many women academics have watched with cynical detachment as their male counterparts are bought up by other institutions, or make deals on salary and position with their existing employer with their bargaining position greatly enhanced by the real threat that they will leave. It will be interesting to do a head count after March 31 1996 and see whether or not the 5 per cent statistic has changed significantly.

Of course there is nothing to stop women academics playing the transfer market as deftly as the men, using it to secure advancement and more money at either their own or another institution. Nothing, that is, except that most women, at the stage of their lives when they are at their most "marketable" in terms of the RAE transfer game, are also at their least mobile in that they have domestic responsibilities to children, partners, dependent relatives etc.

Their employing institutions are likely to know this too and so may be more likely to call a woman's bluff if she threatens to take her research record elsewhere rather than sit down and cut a deal with her in order to keep her.

That is assuming even that women academics have been indulging in this type of bargaining - I suspect that many women may see those RAE-inspired manoeuvres as a typically short-term boys' game, in which individual egos jostle and the real business of long-term original research, thought and enquiry is overlooked.

Of course, if women are serious about academic advancement and want their careers to develop, there is nothing to stop them doing it the way their male counterparts are doing it, uprooting their families and moving them to another part of the country. If those families cannot or will not move, then why does she not work things out so she sees them at weekends only?

There will always be a chair somewhere for the woman who is willing to become an honorary man and keep herself free of messy ties, relationships and dependencies in order to exist only for her scholarly work, but these women are never likely to make up more than 5 per cent of the female population.

I am surprised that The THES, which has examined many of the other distorting effects of the impending RAE, has overlooked the way in which the transfer market it has inspired is of practical irrelevance to many otherwise deserving women academics. The chairs and senior positions traded in that market have been designed almost exclusively for the masculine bottom.

Joanna Gray

Lecturer in law

University of Newcastle upon Tyne

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