There is an “unconscious bias” against women in academia that is found in both sexes and that institutions must act on if it is to be overcome, the vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford has said.
Andrew Hamilton made the remarks last week at the third Universia International Presidents’ Meeting in Rio de Janeiro, a gathering of more than 1,100 university leaders from 33 countries.
Professor Hamilton, responding to a question about the challenges faced by women in academic careers, said that research conducted across different parts of the world made it “increasingly clear that unconscious bias against women exists, particularly against applications from women for faculty positions [and] letters of recommendation about women students”.
“This unconscious bias is seemingly found equally in both men and women; it’s not something that resides only in the male species. So we need awareness and training about this so it can be recognised and worked against,” he said.
Professor Hamilton was answering questions after a speech in which he underlined the growing importance of the commercialisation of research – that is “identifying research with [commercial] potential and actively marketing it”.
This was not a new idea for higher education, he said, citing the international team (Howard Florey, Ernst Chain and Norman Heatley) that took Sir Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin in 1928 and found a way to make it into a viable medicine.
According to Professor Hamilton, “our challenge in the 21st century is to repeat that process systematically: to deliver excellence in research, but to organise it in a much more complex context, based on new types of [international and commercial] relationships”.
He also stated his support for the role of the humanities in underpinning the work of students and researchers in science. This is particularly important in equipping scientists with the skills to tackle ethical considerations, he said, citing the example of an Oxford spin-off company in Brazil that is developing genetically modified mosquitoes to combat the spread of dengue fever.
“The science is fantastic, but the ethical questions are huge,” Professor Hamilton said. “It’s for these reasons that we maintain strong philosophy [and] humanities faculties, and expose students to those questions of ethics whatever faculty they are in, including science and medicine.”
The Universia conference took place on 28 and 29 July and was attended by about 30 UK vice-chancellors, as well as hundreds from across Latin America, the US, continental Europe, Southeast Asia and Africa. It was described by organiser Santander as the largest-ever summit of its kind.
During the summit, the banking group – which also sponsors the Universia network of universities from Spain, Portugal and the Americas – announced a €700 million (£550 million) investment in higher education over four years, including on scholarships to support the cross-border mobility of students and academics.