'Good girls' don't rise to the top

Women told to be more assertive when scaling the barriers of sexism, writes Matthew Reisz

May 19, 2011

Credit: Moodboard/Getty
Advice line: Following the rules can break rather than make careers for women

Female academics would be aided by the introduction of gender-blind peer review and an end to the culture of compliant "good girls" in higher education, a conference has heard.

The argument was set out last week at a British Federation of Women Graduates colloquium on "female leadership in higher education", at which Elaine Thomas, vice-chancellor of the University for the Creative Arts, paid tribute to the work of the now-defunct "Through the Glass Ceiling" network, which was set up in 1991.

It was about this time that she had become a dean of faculty, she said, and "truly entered a world of men in suits". The leadership courses of the time were either militaristic or, when aimed at women, soft-centred, with participants asked to describe their favourite colours or goddesses, she recalled.

The network, by contrast, had proved a breath of fresh air, pinpointing role models and networks. It had also helped overcome low expectations, where women did not put themselves forward despite "seeing confident but mediocre men rising to the top".

Although things had changed greatly, Professor Thomas said, she worried that we had now reached a plateau.

Meanwhile, Mary Evans, centennial professor in the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics, said the curriculum has been "revolutionised" over the past 20 to 30 years. Yet when ideas and universities were changing so fast, it was crucial that "women don't just play catch-up and try to occupy the positions that men have today".

Universities were full of men suffering from "Moses syndrome", according to Professor Evans, which consisted of "speaking very assertively without argument". Women, she advised, should avoid becoming "good girls" who embraced "a culture of compliance" because "following rules often breaks rather than builds careers, and seldom leads to the kind of creative and original thinking we so need".

The colloquium also heard of the practical barriers many women faced, such as parental responsibility, and the way that the publication requirements of the research excellence framework could be seen as institutionalised sexism.

Teresa Rees, pro vice-chancellor (research) at Cardiff University, said that across Europe 45 per cent of PhDs are done by women, yet 20 per cent of male academics are top-grade professors while the corresponding rate for women is only 7 per cent.

The pipeline tended to leak at the postdoctoral stage, where hiring decisions were often in the hands of individual professors, she said, but benchmarking and more transparent promotion procedures could help address this. Equally important, she said, were double-blind peer review and gender audits of committees, particularly to ensure that women were represented in finance.


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