The cards have long been stacked against women in the academy. Despite the academic achievements of women and repeated claims of the "feminisation" of our universities, just 19 per cent of professors are female and women are far less likely to be deemed "research active". In the final research assessment exercise in 2008, only 48 per cent of women in the "permanent academic staff" category were entered, compared with 67 per cent of men. Black and disabled staff were also less likely to be entered.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England's own analysis of this gender inequity concluded that although this could have been due to "a lower proportion of women having a research record that leads them to be selected", it might also have been the result of "selection bias" and "deeply rooted inequalities in the research careers of men and women". Hefce also reported that despite new equality processes put in place for RAE 2008, the composition of staff selected was remarkably similar to RAE 2001.
This time round, in the preparations for the research excellence framework 2014, we are assured that equality and diversity are being taken seriously, with fresh procedures and guidelines being developed. This is good news, but why then do the initial proposals still seem to be based on the assumption that academics are, or should be, fit and able-bodied men without significant caring responsibilities? It seems that those who do not fit into this category - those, for example, on maternity leave or who are seriously ill - will just have to work much harder than everyone else when they return to work.
To be fair, under the REF's "clearly defined circumstances" category, if an academic has taken 14 months' maternity leave during the assessment period, she has the right to submit one fewer publication. But 14 months? Most scholars take far less: indeed, many take under 14 months in total for two separate periods of maternity leave. So women in this situation will have to produce the same number of publications as everyone else, but in a shorter timescale while also caring for one or more young children.
There is, though, provision to make a special case in "more complex circumstances", where there are "additional constraints related to pregnancy and maternity". These also apply to disability, ill health and mental health conditions. In contrast to the "clearly defined circumstances" category, there is no automatic right to enter fewer publications, although the guidance suggests that a similar timeframe would usually apply. If so, someone who has been off work with a serious illness for less than 14 months would usually still be required to produce four outputs in a shorter time period than everyone else - unless they plead special dispensation and divulge their personal circumstances to a research manager.
The need to plead special circumstances just for having babies shows how the traditional notion of the academic as male still rules. Scholarly work, with its culture of long hours and the relentless treadmill of academic production, publications, international conferences and networking, is not designed for those with significant caring responsibilities. It epitomises what Kathleen Lynch, professor of equality studies at University College Dublin, calls the "carelessness" of the academy, where caring both outside and inside the university is invisible and/or derided. And, however much we hear of "new men" - and yes, I know some do exist - it is still predominantly women who take primary responsibility for care both in the home and in the university, in the latter context shouldering more of the teaching, pastoral and teaching-related administrative duties.
In contrast, men predominate in research. This became crystal-clear to me when preparing for the final RAE. I attended a university-wide meeting for unit of assessment coordinators and thought I had walked into the wrong room when the only people there were men. As someone from the field of education and part of a wider research community linked with the humanities, I was used to a research environment that was more gender balanced. Although more women arrived, it was still a very noticeably male-dominated meeting, and I suspect this pattern is repeated in universities across the country. These are the research managers to whom women who have "additional constraints related to pregnancy and maternity" will presumably have to divulge their personal details to plead special dispensation if they have taken less than 14 months' maternity leave. The "possible alternative approach" in the Hefce proposals for one fewer publication for each discrete period of maternity leave is far preferable.
Of course, this is only one of the many gender issues related to research policy and practice. The increased concentration of funding in an ever-smaller number of elite universities is likely to further benefit men, as these institutions tend to have an even lower proportion of senior female academics than the rest of the sector. Assumptions of a level playing field in research assessment ignore not only the gendered economy of "care" in the academy, but also the material and cultural conditions that affect academic productivity and success, such as opportunities for study leave, sabbaticals and reduced teaching loads. And to cap it all, recent research from Sweden has found that male researchers are far more likely to be deemed "excellent" than females. We still have a long way to go.