The declining social and economic status of academics, combined with increasing regulation, may be to blame for falling numbers of male lecturers, although this could be opening opportunities for women, according to new figures.
Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal that the gender divide is narrowing slowly, although women continue to make up only 39 per cent of the profession, from senior professors to junior researchers.
The figures suggest a trend of more women being appointed in 2002-03, particularly to senior lecturer posts but also to professorships, prompting the question of what is changing in the still male-dominated world of higher education.
Louise Morley of the Institute of Education, University of London, said that a combination of relatively low pay and high regulation is "changing the atmosphere" in higher education.
"An interesting question is whether the status is going out of the profession. In some countries, the profession has been 'feminised' because it has very low status," she said. "But you could see this in the light of pay - that the pay is relatively low compared with other professions."
Professor Morley added: "There is another view: that the audit of higher education is putting some men off because they don't like the regulation of the profession - the quality assurance and audit - and feel that it isn't what they agreed to do when they became academics.
"So there is a changing atmosphere in the profession, coupled with poor wages, that could be putting some men off. But you could have a paradoxical situation where, if the status goes out of the profession, opportunities open for women."
The scale of the gender gap varied between disciplines, with women forming a 64 per cent majority at professorial level in nursing and paramedical studies, compared with only 2.9 per cent of physics professors.
But there are also differences within the sciences, with women representing 9.6 per cent of professors in the biosciences but only 1.2 per cent in electrical, electronic and computer engineering.
The figures also paint a broader picture of the general fortunes of the different academic disciplines between 2001 and 2003.
While staffing levels in mechanical engineering, aero and production engineering have declined across all grades, the number of academics in business and management studies, design and creative arts has increased.