Lipstick and white collars

July 28, 1995

Elaine Williams reports on the slow progress of women in the male world of academic management. Working in universities has been good preparation for a gentleman's club". One of the three new women vice chancellors who take up their posts in September was contemplating her membership of the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, a male-dominated stronghold long-boasting patrician values.

Things are changing of course. Polytechnics became universities and the new boys to the CVCP, coming from an entirely different tradition, brought a more executive, less ritualistic, managerial style with them. Now there are women, and as their numbers increase no doubt the culture will change again, but more slowly, perhaps imperceptibly.

Women in lower managerial ranks welcome this year's crop of female v-cs (more than doubling past numbers) as providing important role models. But compared to other professions and companies, universities have one of the worst records in terms of the number of women gaining top academic and administrative posts.

Since the disbanding of the Universities Statistical Record, up-to-date, accurate statistics have been hard to come by. But broad-brush statistics are available, in some cases up to the last academic year.

Although the gender gap is closing in schools in terms of exam results, and women are now equally represented in the undergraduate population, the profile of women in academic and administrative posts is diminishing. Women made up only 17.3 per cent of the total academic staff population in the old universities according to USR statistics for 1994, and 25.2 per cent of the total in new universities in 1992, the most recent available figures. Moreover only 6 per cent of women in the old universities gained professorships and 13.5 per cent of women in new universities rose above the post of principal lecturer.

Although women are over-represented in the lowest clerical ranks (53.9 per cent in old universities in December 1994) only 11.9 per cent of women were in top posts such as bursar or registrar.

Many women in university management still come up via an academic route, making their names with scholarly work before switching to management. Look at Marilyn Butler, for instance, rector of Exeter College, Oxford, the first female rector of a formerly men-only college, whose reputation is partly based on her scholarship in English literature. But this pattern is changing. It is becoming increasingly possible to make a career in university management without even having a PhD. The new breed of university managers progress via administrative jobs; some like Elizabeth Esteve-Coll move from management positions outside academe to take up vice chancellorships.

But for those still coming up the academic route, university career structures work against women. Short-term research contracts make it difficult for women to build up eligibility for maternity leave and if they do take time out they may then find they are too old on return to apply for certain grants.

On the face of it, universities have been making an effort to address the gender imbalance in top posts. In 1994 the CVCP established the Commission on University Career Opportunity (CUCO), whose job it is to encourage and assist universities to set their own programmes of action and goals to achieve a balanced and representative staff.

A CUCO survey revealed that more than 90 per cent of universities have equal opportunities policies, 75 per cent have workplace nurseries, 72 per cent have guidelines on fair recruitment. But only 37 per cent of universities had adopted action plans in 1994, only 42 per cent had provided training on equal opportunities for staff responsible for recruitment and only 21 per cent had made that training compulsory.

There have been notable initiatives like the Springboard Programme at London and Cambridge Universities. As many as 300 women have so far been through the Cambridge scheme which provides assertiveness training and strategies for building up women's self-esteem. Felicity Hunt, in charge of equal opportunities at the university, believes that Cambridge's expanding administration is providing good opportunities for women. Two years ago the university appointed its first female treasurer.

Dr Hunt said: "Women who have been through Springboard seem to be doing well. They have more confidence and are prepared to take more risks in relation to their careers.''

Women in top posts have set up networks of support which also act to encourage juniors. Christine King, the newly appointed vice chancellor of Staffordshire University established the Glass Ceiling network in universities eight years ago. A networking system used by women managers in other sectors, the glass ceiling represents the invisible obstacles put in the way of women's promotion and success.

When she was made dean of faculty at Lancashire Polytechnic Professor King decided she needed the support of other women in similar positions. She said: "I had to leaf through prospectuses in search of names. I knew that my way of dealing with people was very different. Did I need to learn a new way or was my way of doing things all right? I needed other contacts."

There are now 200 members of the Glass Ceiling network, but according to Judi Marshall, professor of organisational behaviour in the School of Management at Bath University, getting the top job is only the first step in an uphill struggle. Gaining acceptance in the role can be equally difficult. Women need to have confidence in the value of their own viewpoint and they need to gain informal as well as formal recognition of their work, otherwise they will not be as powerful as men in the same post.

Her latest book Women Managers Moving On, to be published in the autumn, picks up on statistics from the Institute of Management which show that more women than men are leaving top posts.

Marshall interviewed women who were quitting jobs either because they felt they were being blocked, or because they disliked the way the post was dominating their lives. A significant number were disheartened by the "aggression, bullying and politicking of male managerial structures'' which they deemed to be ineffective. She said: "Women have to decide whether they adopt male-defined models or whether they seek to be innovative."

However, universities are undergoing structural changes which may unwittingly provide greater opportunities for women in management. Greater accountability and devolved budgeting to cost centres may help to promote departmental and faculty administrators, many of them women, into more managerial roles. Moreover specialist administrators are increasingly required, in alumni relations or fund-raising, for example, which is attracting a significant number with professional qualifications from outside, again opening up possibilities to women. In addition, university management structures tend to be more horizontal than hierarchical, with devolution to greater numbers of pro-vice chancellors.

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