Females fail in power game

April 25, 1997

WOMEN are failing to take a share of the power in academic institutions, remaining subject to decisions made mostly by men. A snapshot of universities and colleges shows that more than 40 per cent have no women at all in the senior positions of vice chancellor, pro and deputy vice chancellor, bursar, registrar and librarian.

Among those institutions lacking top women are five of the top ten scorers in the recent research assessment exercise and six of the eight colleges that make up the University of Wales.

A study of 145 institutions was presented last week to the first international conference on transitons in gender and education at Warwick University by Lalage Bown, emeritus professor at the University of Glasgow and honorary professor at Warwick. She found that where female officers did exist they were mostly lone individuals in an environment dominated by males.

Professor Bown said concern about a gender gap in higher education had concentrated so far on the number of women entering the sector. While this was still an important issue, particularly as student hardship increased, it was vital to increase the number of women taking decisions about academic life.

She said: "Access to a degree has enabled women to become participants in the higher education process but still as objects, with decisions about the process, the curriculum, the organisation and the system itself being largely in the hands of men."

Women tended to rise to the top in less secure institutions, where they would take the blame for problems, she said. They were also being pushed out by increasing emphasis on managerialism and small management groups, which were unlikely to include them.

She blamed pressures of the research assessment exercise for downgrading subjects where women were traditionally strong, such as community work, in favour of more male-dominated scientific disciplines.

Some universities had few women even in lower academic positions, while less than 4 per cent of professors nationally were female.

Britain compared poorly with Australia, where of the 42 higher education institutions studied, 17 per cent had women chancellors, 19 per cent women pro chancellors and only 17 per cent had no women at all in leadership.

"It is important for any women in a position of decision-making to make sure she enables other women to have a chance," said Professor Bown. "It is also essential to have regular auditing and monitoring of the number of women in senior positions."

She said women academics should be more prepared to take part in public policy bodies, such as quangos and learned societies, where important decisions about higher education were made.

Her study also highlights the small number of women who are visitors, chancellors or chairs of governing bodies in universities. Professor Bown has headed university departments abroad and in this country and has been dean of a faculty in Nigeria, responsible for 200 members of staff.

She said more work was needed on trends in the number of women entering higher education and their opportunities for policy-making at national government level, such as in the funding councils.

Fiona Dway, secretary to the Commission on University Career Opportunity, set up to improve participation of under-represented groups in universities, said projects were under way to improve the number of senior women in higher education institutions.

CUCO will publish a survey next month showing that 18 per cent of senior post-holders - from the level of dean upwards - are women. "All universities now have policies in place to improve these numbers," she said. "It is a question of putting them into practice."

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