Chipping away at the glass ceiling

July 26, 1996

As a book and university league table today reveal the extent of discrimination against women academics, we focus on two new professors and their fight for recognition - Gillian Morriss-Kay (below left) and Carole Jordan (right).

Earlier this month I received a letter from the vice chancellor telling me the outcome of my application for the title of reader or professor. After the poor performance of women in gaining recognition during my 20 years in Oxford, I was cautiously optimistic but by no means confident of the outcome, and knew that I was risking another rebuff by applying. As I read the words "I has carefully considered your application I" I prepared myself for an expression of regret, and read "I I am pleased to say that I" with my brain in the wrong mode. It was a professorship. I felt relief first; pleasure came later and then by the evening an immense sadness that I could not share the achievement with my husband, who died two years ago. He had been my greatest fan and in spite of his failing health gave me enormous encouragement during the battle to get the university to recognise the discriminatory nature of its promotions policy.

I was only dimly aware that there was a problem when, in 1990, 60 readerships were awarded, only three of them (5 per cent), to women. Jennifer Hornsby, a philosopher and Nicola Lacey, a lawyer, wrote a piece for the Oxford Magazine revealing that the university had deliberately excluded "promotion" from its code on equal opportunities, on the grounds that it was an unnecessary complication.

Until that time I had taken very little interest in promotions; the people who got them were the sort of people one expected to get them, and they were thin on the ground. In that group of 60, though, there were some whose elevation was a surprise to me. Still, if readerships were going to be available in that kind of number on a regular basis, I could try for one next time - I was naively unaware that it should be taken seriously as a sign that something was wrong. I was also unaware that there was only one other woman reader in the university, making four out of a total of 109.

That year, I resigned the Balliol College fellowship I had held for 14 years. This action was in itself unconnected with the promotions issue, but far from irrelevant to the broader aspects of the women's performance problem, and an important step in my own painful transition from naive and passive to aware and active. I had been taking home a level of stress that was a burden to my already ailing husband and to my young son; besides, the messages I was getting from some key colleagues, to the effect that I was of no account, were seriously at odds with the international recognition I was by then enjoying through my research.

In 1991 the university set up an equal opportunities committee, which I was asked to join. With the aim of making a useful contribution, I did a bit of armchair research, going through the University Calendar's list of academic staff to discover the number of women who were lecturers, readers and professors in each faculty (Oxford has no senior lecturer grade). Having always felt comfortable in my own department (human anatomy) and faculty (physiological sciences) because there were good proportions of women on the academic staff of both, I was shocked to discover that we were all, even the most senior, mere lecturers. This was my conversion experience - for the first time I noticed that there were very able senior women who had been passed over for promotion, and for whom it was now too late. The following year, men and no women were promoted to professorships. The university's equal opportunities officer replied to a woman complainant that the all-male promotions result was "regrettable but understandable", given the small number of women readers. The implication was that we should apply for readerships in the next promotions exercise, in order to be better placed for the next professorial round. The statistical improbability that there was not a single woman lecturer who was academically equal or superior to any of those men should be considered in the context of the fact that Carole Jordan had been elected to the Royal Society two years previously.

At this point, the "new universities" entered the scene. There were those in the Oxford establishment who became worried about our academics not being selected for representation on government advisory bodies, with so many new professors around. The concern was taken so seriously that the 1993 promotions exercise was announced as another professorial one. Requests from the equal opportunities committee and several faculty boards that the decision be reversed, because of the inevitable discriminatory nature of the selection process, were refused. On May 18, following a debate in Congregat ion (the "dons' parliament"), the decision was overturned by a seven to one majority. It was a pyrrhic victory: of the 19 new readers who were appointed seven months later, only two were women. Nevertheless, these two successes were pleasing in themselves: Carole Jordan, of course, and also Frances Kirwan, a mathematician with three young children.

The university's motto after that seemed to be "if you can't get it right, stop trying": promotions were thenceforth abolished. In future, there would be titles only, with no change of duties or salary. Even that idea was opposed (unsuccessfully) in Congregation, most notably by a retired professor and a near-retirement reader, both philosophers. Their titles should, they felt, remain rare and special. Meanwhile, female professorial appointments to statutory posts such as headships of departments and sub-departments were quietly increasing, so that by this year there were 12 women out of the total 199 professors (6 per cent), up from 2.8 per cent in 1989. The new "titles of distinction" bring that number to 28 out of 342 (8.1 per cent). Women formed 15 per cent of the eligible pool for the recent professorships.

The achievement of Oxford University in making this change should not be underestimated: even evolutionary change does not go down well here, and this has been revolution. Our titles of reader and professor are now equivalent to those of London, Manchester or Cambridge, and the proportion of women professors approaches that of University College London. Unfortunately, because the new titles are unrelated to an underlying salary structure, the effect of the mainly male "real" promotions of previous years must surely give Oxford the greatest discrepancy between the average male and average female professorial salary of any university in the UK.

Gillian Morriss-Kay was one of 18 women appointed to an Oxford professorship earlier this month. The titular promotion was not accompanied by a salary rise.

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