'Macho, white culture' to go

November 2, 2001

Cambridge University is to encourage positive discrimination for women, ethnic minority and disabled staff in an attempt to end the intimidating white, male "macho culture" highlighted in an equal opportunities audit, writes Phil Baty.

The pursuit of academic excellence may no longer be the sole concern in making academic appointments, a meeting of the heads of university institutions has agreed.

In a move that has infuriated some Cambridge academics, the meeting agreed:

"Selection criteria should be based on the (equality) needs of the institution concerned, rather than simply a search for excellence."

Peter Deer, Cambridge's director of personnel, who is spearheading the equality drive, accepted that such initiatives were highly sensitive. "There are ways of expressing these things in different organisations," he said.

He said positive discrimination in favour of minority candidates would come into play only where all other factors were equal, and in areas of the university where inequalities were particularly bad.

The Association of University Teachers cautiously welcomed the move. National spokesman Andrew Pakes said: "Positive discrimination should be in addition to the pursuit of excellence, rather than replacing it."

Gill Evans, a Cambridge historian who has been campaigning for reform of staff promotion procedures for almost a decade, said that such initiatives helped no one. "Positive discrimination is unfair for both sexes - it diminishes women's achievements and it discriminates against men," she said.

The Equal Opportunities Commission said that positive discrimination - where a candidate gains an unfair advantage over a similarly or better qualified candidate purely on the grounds of gender - was illegal under the Sex Discrimination Act.

Cambridge is also introducing other initiatives, including outreach work to encourage applications from underrepresented groups, mentoring for new staff, and training courses for departmental and institutional heads.

An audit published earlier this year found that Cambridge's predominately white, male leaders were propagating a macho and intimidating culture and were largely blind to the needs of female, ethnic minority and disabled colleagues.

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