Prisoners of gender

November 3, 1995

Women hold only 5 per cent of professorships in the UK. Helena Kennedy examines the different forms of male prejudice which have caused this marginalisation.

In the 1860s Sophia Jex-Blake, determined to train and practise in medicine, sought to enrol in the faculty of medicine at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Initially, the university accepted her enrolment, provided she received separate tuition in embarrassing subjects like anatomy. However, other students and some of the faculty took exception to Sophia's presence and began a campaign of harassment and exclusion. They introduced a sheep into the lectures, which wore a placard suggesting it had greater brainpower than the woman in their midst, and certain professors refused to teach a member of the fair sex out of respect for her delicacy and sensibilities.

Although joined in the course by a handful of other undaunted women, who provided some sustenance against the constant provocation, it became clear to Sophia that the refusal of academics to teach women would prevent any of them qualifying. There ensued a lengthy legal battle, Jex-Blake vs Senatus of the University of Edinburgh (1873) 11 McPherson 784, culminating in a ruling by their lordships which excluded women from tertiary institutions.

Passages of Lord Neave's judgment explain the rationale: "It is a belief, widely entertained, that there is a great difference in the mental constitution of the two sexes, just as there is in their physical conformation. The power and susceptibilities of women are as noble as those of men; but they are thought to be different and, in particular, it is considered that they have not the same power of intense labour as men are endowed with. If this be so, it must form a serious objection to uniting them under the same course of academic study. I confess that, to some extent, I share this view, and should regret to see our young females subjected to the severe and incessant work which my own observation and experience have taught me to consider as indispensable to any high attainment in learning. A disregard of such an inequality would be fatal to any scheme of public instruction . . .

"Add to this the special acquirements and accomplishments at which women must aim, but from which men may easily remain exempt. Much time must, or ought to be, given by women to the acquisition of a knowledge of household affairs and family duties, as well as to those ornamental parts of education which tend so much to social refinement and domestic happiness, and the study necessary for mastering these must always form a serious distraction from severe pursuits, while there is little doubt that, in public estimation, the want of these feminine arts and attractions in a woman would be ill supplied by such branches of knowledge as a university could bestow."

Happily, there continued to be bloody-minded women who relished "severe pursuits" and there were sustained and persistent assaults by subsequent generations of women upon the citadels of learning. Oxford allowed women to take degrees in 1920; Cambridge withheld full membership from them until 1948. However, a different story can be told of the "new" civic universities of Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield and others, which had come into being in the latter half of the 19th century, making a decisive contribution to the education of women because of their much more egalitarian ethos. And of course, each further wave of "new" universities - the glass and steel campuses of the 1960s and the now elevated polytechnics - have steadily embraced women so that females now constitute about 50 per cent of undergraduates within most universities in the United Kingdom.

Yet, the shameful fact remains that only 5 per cent of professorships in the UK are held by women and 16 per cent in the United States. In the words of historian Janet Sondheimer "professorial chairs, apparently, were designed to accommodate only the masculine frame".

Why should it be that the world of academe should lag so far behind other fields of endeavour? A report published by the Hansard Society in 1990 argued that women suffered from a double disadvantage in UK university life. The writers of the report cited figures showing that women still constituted a significant minority of full-time, tenured university academic staff, and pointed out that this minority was concentrated in lower grade posts. The Hansard Commission contended that it was "wholly unacceptable that British universities should remain bastions of male power and prestige". Oxford and Cambridge were particularly censured.

In the intervening period some progress has taken place. We have, for example, seen the appointment of women, such as Marilyn Butler (rector of Exeter College, Oxford) as principals of Oxbridge colleges which were formerly all male. The new universities are employing women in slightly more generous numbers. In 1993 the Government commissioned a working party to look into the problems of women in science, engineering and technology, and in the following year it published a report, The Rising Tide, recommending ways in which hurdles could be removed. But the pace of change is testudinal.

Why are there fewer women at the top? Like many similar studies, a recent analysis showed that although youngsters enter Oxbridge universities with similar A-level results more boys than girls achieve a first-class degree. (McCrum: "The academic gender deficit at Oxford and Cambridge". Oxford Review of Education 1994). The author of this study suggests a number of possible explanations, including the theory that men have larger and/or better brains than women.

On the other hand, in a recent article in Scientific American, Professor M. Holloway observed that women in science commonly encounter a "glass ceiling", and proposed that the system itself might be at fault for their failure. She suggested that women are judged in a system set up by men which reflects male standards and criteria. An argument I have tendered in relation to the small numbers of women appointed to the ranks of Queen's Counsel and to the Bench.

In a review of recent policy, Nancy Lane of the department of zoology at Cambridge records that women are more likely to be interested in scientific problems if they have social relevance, and tend to work better in collaboration rather than competition. Women scientists are believed to organise their laboratories in a less hierarchical way than men, approaching problems with a different managerial style, and often having a different sociological perspective. All of these observations suggest that cultural and attitudinal differences, not innate feminine flaws, have made science a world dominated by masculine habits and behaviour. A more collaborative "female" approach might help not just women, but also the system's overall effectiveness.

However, the undervaluing of women's skill is central to their absence in the highest echelons. The difficulty in challenging the glass ceiling which exists for women is that it is so difficult to see. The explanation is peddled that women are not present in these elite groups because of the extraordinary nature of the achievement necessary to gain a place, or a first-class degree, or a senior academic post at these centres of excellence. This fiction that the tests of excellence are neutral and that merit is an objective assessment are perpetually fostered. A Times editorial in 1993 explained that "Oxford's dilemma is that equal opportunities commitments conflict with the competitive system on which the university is based". As Lisa Jardine, dean of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, pointed out at the time, this fails to explain why one set of competitors - highly qualified female academics - never get off the starting blocks.

Although rarely articulated, there is an unspoken residual belief that women just might not be as clever as their male colleagues. Therefore, the very few who register on the male-determined academic Richter scale are wholly exceptional. It can be very tempting then for those, who are given the "exceptional" badge, to believe they are truly blessed among women and not to see the disadvantage faced by other female academics.

In departments with anything approaching equal numbers of women and men, the women perform exactly as well as men. And as badly - there are plenty of middlingly competent men in senior posts in our universities. (Just as I see many mediocre male judges in our courts!) But it is clear that places where women are valued are much more likely to produce their best performance.

We are inclined to believe that the academic world is one immune to prejudice - a world of genuine equal opportunity, where free expression and liberal values ensure that pure brilliance, objectively recognised, gains its reward. However, this is a myth which has to be examined.

There are no job descriptions for professorships, no personnel specifications, no stipulated criteria against which to assess the fitness of the appointee to the post. Accordingly, there are no checks against the inadvertently biased choices, which regularly creep into appointment committees. Without explicit criteria, promotion panels can, with the best intentions, persist in introducing extraneous criteria which render a candidate unsuitable, when really their resistance to the candidate is because she is not what they know, what they have always had, what they can trust.

The difficulty about using the law, the Sex Discrimination Act, for example, to challenge promotion decisions, as Alison Halford, the senior policewoman, discovered to her cost, is that institutions, accused of discriminatory practice in a senior level discretionary appointment, always insist upon the inferiority of the complainant to justify their choice. The process can be profoundly undermining to the woman and prejudicial to her opportunities elsewhere. All too often the tribunal hearing the case will share the values of the appointing body and fail to recognise the discrimination.

One of the central components of the glass ceiling in academia is the mysterious and mystified ideal of an ungendered, disembodied academic brilliance. Germaine Greer has argued that the Oxbridge, (and Ivy League) first-class degree represents a particular style of intellectual achievement to which women should not feel compelled to aspire. That is all very well but if the world out there still rates that particular success as more valuable than any other, where does it leave women? What still has to be challenged are the very conceptions of knowledge and excellence produced and protected by a discipline or profession. The historian Joan Scott argues that we have been distracted by the numbers game of trying to expand access to the universities without recognising that once "inside" the institution, "the subject-disciplines operate curiously consistently to remind those within that the female participant is other than the participant around whom the subject has been structured".

Even when women seek to introduce a different perspective, the result is frequent marginalising of their scholarship. Academics doing work specifically concerning women will be seen as narrow, their expertise as less central than those who keep closer to the orthodoxies. And so, for many women, there is early recognition that a condition of admission to these rarefied worlds is to function as honorary men. Similar choices have to be made by ambitious women in other fields. "Hard" areas of politics like economics, foreign affairs and defence are more prestigious and the likelier roads to the top than "soft" ministries like social services, health or education. There are the hard and soft sciences, the hard and soft areas in law, in history, in medicine. The hard areas are more highly esteemed, are dominated by men, and if a woman penetrates them, and plays by the boys' rules, she will be highly regarded too. In her paper "The Illusion of Inclusion", Professor Jardine says "that it is a secret fear of many women that if they choose to work on a woman author, or if they take a woman's studies option or answer a feminism question in their examinations they will pay a consequence. On numerous occasions I have been tempted to dissuade a student from choosing a women's topic, because it will earn a lower grade, or will need to be 'much better than normal' to gain a good one".

But the question remains as to whether the talents of women are different from those of men. Do women approach their research from a female perspective? Is there any difference in what men and women produce in the field of ideas? Consider the old debate between the essentialists and the relativists, the former arguing that there are biological causes for the different behaviour of men and women, the latter holding that masculine and feminine identities are social constructs. The woman at the heart of this debate has been Carol Gilligan, whose book, In a Different Voice, stimulated violent debate in the women's movement when it was first published in the early 1980s. It was interpreted as endorsing the idea that differences between men and women are not just the outcome of patriarchal oppression. The book concluded that women's moral perspective is often different from that of men, an idea which I have no difficulty in accepting in general terms because it resonates so powerfully with my perception of women's approach to law.

However, as soon as one recognises difference, there is a fear that value judgements invariably follow in which the characteristics ascribed to women, such as care and responsibility, are low in the ranking. Unless real value is attached to the "female" qualities, the consequence could be that women remain locked into negative identities. An intellectual, "Brahmin" culture privileges not just abstract principles of rights and justice but it also privileges particular disciplines or modes of inquiry. Many women understandably view the "difference" argument with alarm because it could create a cul de sac for women, especially when many are involved in intellectual endeavour which cannot be stereotyped in this way. Hel ne Cixous, the French intellectual, rejects the idea that recognition of difference is essentialist. She argues that the struggle for equality becomes confused with a denial of difference. Difference for her is difference "between" not "against" and, in celebratory style, she teaches the "poetic of sexual difference" as a challenge to sterile conceptions of equality.

There can be no resolution of such a debate. Where there can be consensus is that women should be encouraged to be intellectually productive, in whatever ways they desire, and have their endeavours valued. I have come to the conclusion that this will only come to pass if women are included in all the "gatekeeping" procedures and in all the processes of assessment of research and scholarship. It means that all the paraphernalia of private sector appointing has to be introduced into the hallowed territory of academia. As Lisa Jardine says: "It works. If you have to tick a box as to why you have discarded one candidate in favour of another you are forced to confront your own unacknowledged resistance to change".

Helena Kennedy QC is chancellor of Oxford Brookes University. This is an extract from her introduction to an anthology of profiles of women academics, to be published next year by Manchester University Press, in conjunction with The THES.

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