Stellar careers passed over in search for stars

May 14, 2004

The insidious nature of recruiting for RAE success means women are again losing out, says Georgina Waylen

Universities are again trying to increase their chance of high ratings in the next research assessment exercise by seeking to employ "research stars". Hundreds of jobs have been advertised in research-intensive universities that ask for research leaders with strategic vision and international reputations. Despite the attempts to prevent it, a huge transfer market appears to be developing in which informal approaches, poaching and bargaining are rife, and those who seem to possess the requisite characteristics can command a high price. These increasingly common recruitment practices for senior positions are notoriously secret and lack accountability.

The implications of these developments are also highly gendered. Female academics, however high the standard of their research, are less likely to be seen as appropriate for top posts. Often this appears to be more about their reputation among certain influential peer groups and the supposed possession of the "vision" and "leadership" commonly attributed to men. Anecdotal evidence suggests that women are less likely to be approached than men and that, if they are shortlisted, those women whose research is of an international quality do not get appointed to external chairs to the same extent as men. This has a knock-on effect on women's chances of promotion within their own institutions, as an important, yet unofficial, measure of worth is now the number of approaches from other institutions.

Inevitably this phenomenon is most prevalent in the Russell Group universities, which are competing most fiercely to become winners in the next RAE. Women have historically found it more difficult to reach senior positions in these "elite" institutions than in other universities. In 1996-97 they formed only 7.3 per cent of Russell Group professors, a figure that had risen to only 9.2 per cent in 2000 when in the sector as a whole, 12 per cent of professors were women.

Despite recent indications that the gap has been narrowing, there is a danger that the indirect consequences of the 2008 RAE will further entrench the dominance of men in the most prestigious part of the system.

Yet this runs counter to some of the important gains women have made in recent years. The overall number of female professors has increased from 8.9 per cent in 1996-97 to 13 per cent today. The bodies in charge of British higher education have a greater public commitment to remedying the continuing dearth of women in senior jobs. Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, has advocated more transparent selection procedures that would prevent practices that limit the selection pool and act to exclude women. And best practice on equal opportunities is now recognised officially in the 2008 RAE as a fundamental principle, to be achieved through measures such as equal opportunities training for panel members and the formulation of standard rules to ensure that women are not disadvantaged - for example by prolonged absences from work through maternity leave - in their submissions.

But these welcome changes cannot prevent the more insidious impact of the RAE on the structure of the academic profession and the indirect ways it works against the progress of women and other groups to top positions. Not only do these recruitment practices run counter to measures advocated by bodies such as UUK, but they are also likely to undermine efforts to increase the number of women taking up careers in academia. A study by the Political Studies Association to examine the relative absence of women in the political science profession shows that careful mentoring and female role models encourage female undergraduates into postgraduate study and academia.

What can be done to prevent the undermining of measures to promote equal opportunities? In the short term, because of the difficulties in obtaining information, more monitoring and analysis are needed. Ideally, data should be collected on the proportions of informal approaches made to women; women on shortlists; and female appointees to advertised and non-advertised positions.

In the longer term, all senior academic appointments could be made open to external scrutiny along the lines suggested by the Nolan committee on standards in public life. Universities have to ensure that all the procedures surrounding recruitment and the RAE are seen to be open, accountable and transparent.

Georgina Waylen is senior lecturer in politics at the University of Sheffield.

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