RAE is a great boon to equal opps

March 10, 2000

A careful sifting of Peter Knight's article (Soapbox, THES, March 3) shows that the only mechanism in the research assessment exercise that produces a disadvantage for women is that they cannot publish as many papers as their male counterparts. The only reason I can think of for this is that they lack the one indisputable requisite for producing research papers, namely a penis. In other words, this argument seems as sexist as one can possibly get.

The RAE represents an extraordinary opportunity for ambitious, dedicated and serious academic researchers of either gender, especially given the significant minority of academics (mostly male) who never publish anything. It permits them to move from zero to hero over a five-year-cycle. A good publications list can have a serious monetary value if it tips the balance for a department to move from one category to the next.

For all its failings, the RAE has created an opportunity for academics to achieve recognition for outstanding work. It provides serious monetary incentives for universities to hire or keep high-performing academics. It therefore reduces the many other forms of discrimination inherent in the system and short-circuits the ponderous, unpredictable and ungenerous system of promotion. It enables academics to be promoted on merit rather than on other considerations. In other words, the RAE is the greatest advance towards equal opportunity in academia for over a century.

It may be true that women are not sufficiently represented on RAE panels, but there is no evidence that their research output has been disproportionately criticised. If we believe Knight's account of how RAE panels work, that is, by reliance on numerical output of work in specific categories, sex discrimination is unlikely. If a woman has four peer-reviewed papers, the panel that considers thousands of submissions is likely to count them as such and give them appropriate recognition.

This is less likely to be the case in a university promotions committee, in which men are overrepresented, that considers a small number of applications a year using its own criteria.

In short, Knight's statement that the RAE is the main reason for discrimination against women is wrong. It is also sexist, because it assumes women are inherently unable to publish at the same level as men. Academics usually choose the profession because research is their main interest in life. The RAE means you can come closer to getting paid properly for what you love doing.

Christoph Bluth Director, Centre for Science and International Affairs University of Leeds

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