Sex equality crusaders

September 29, 2006

Exemplary universities selected to show way, reports Tony Tysome

Seven universities have been selected as part of a government-backed project to become models of how institutions can improve career opportunities and pay for women.

Anglia Ruskin, Cranfield, Queen's Belfast, Sheffield, Southampton, Staffordshire and Sunderland universities were selected by the business-led equality campaign Opportunity Now to join 80 "exemplar employers" who were judged to be doing innovative work to improve equality.

Over the next 12 months, the institutions will be expected to demonstrate to Opportunity Now how they have made progress on their own initiatives designed to boost the career prospects of their female employees.

The project, which was launched this month by Ruth Kelly, the Minister for Women, comes in response to a report from the Women and Work Commission that shows that women in full-time work earn on average 17 per cent less than men. According to the University and College Union, the gender pay gap among academics is 17.5 per cent.

The commission recommends that the Government draws together exemplar employers that demonstrate best practice to share their expertise with others. Opportunity Now will track the work at the selected universities and document their efforts in a report to be published next summer.

Julie Ashdown, manager of the exemplars project, said universities had a mixed record on equal opportunities. She said: "Our aim is to showcase the best so that those that are farther behind can pick up ideas."

One exemplar, Queen's, also won Opportunity Now's top award for the education sector this year. The prize recognised the university's effort over six years to overcome a male dominated culture and improve the career prospects of female staff.

Margaret Mullett, director of the gender initiative at Queen's, said that although significant improvements had been made, more work was needed to close the pay gap between men and women and to increase the number of women in senior positions. Only 30 of the university's 160 professors are women.

She said: "We are making slow progress, but at least we are progressing."

Sunderland, a runner-up in the Opportunity Now education award, plans to run focus groups for part-time female employees as part of its exemplar work over the coming year.

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