As the number of women in academia keeps climbing, even in the sciences, Tony Tysome hears that the shift in the balance could accelerate.
Higher education is set for significant cultural change if the number of female academics continues to grow at current rates, experts were predicting this week.
Heads of human resources and equality champions say that a feminisation of recruitment practices and working conditions is likely to become permanent if the number of women in academe continues to grow at the rates projected for The Times Higher.
Susan Rutherford, human resources director at Liverpool University and chair of the Universities Personnel Association, said she was unsurprised by the progress because institutions had recently been "taking equality issues very seriously".
The new attention to equality is partly a response to new legislation, but it is also driven by other changes such as pay modernisation and new codes of practice for the research assessment exercise, she said.
"HR strategies need to be continually reviewed and developed through effective consultation," Ms Rutherford said. "As the makeup and gender balance of the workforce changes, this will be reflected in the results of consultation that inform changes in institutions' HR strategies."
Helen Scott, UPA executive officer, said the trend was being fuelled by the introduction of more family-friendly policies at universities and by several initiatives that are helping to entice women back into higher education after a career break.
"The fact that more women are being appointed to pro vice-chancellor positions means that they have beaten a path that other women can follow,"
Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the Equality Challenge Unit, said some institutions had an impressive record of encouraging "balanced shortlists"
for posts and of "promoting the sort of work/life balance that encourages female applicants". The shift in the gender balance has also been fostered by networks, mentoring and career training for women, she said.
Ms Dandridge said: "I do think it likely that as more women come into senior decision-making roles, this will have the positive effect of encouraging more flexible and part-time methods of working in those roles because many of those women will have caring responsibilities."
But more needed to be done to address the disturbing finding that it would take more than 50 years before there were as many female professors as male, she said. "That is too long. We need to look at those institutions that have been successful in increasing the proportion of women in senior roles to see what initiatives they have that can be held up as an example of good practice."
Sally Hunt, joint general secretary of the University and College Union, said it was important for institutions to ensure that equality was embedded at every level so that women faced fewer obstacles as they moved up the career ladder. "Women want equality now, they don't want to wait until their daughters or granddaughters start work," she said.
Some have warned, however, that the improvement in gender equality could stall if the rising numbers of women are unevenly spread across different subject areas.
John Brennan, professor of higher education research at the Open University, said: "The most likely scenario is that most of the increasing numbers of women academics are concentrated in certain subject areas.
"If that is the case, it is possible that the number of women in these subjects will reach a saturation point, and then the overall gender rebalancing will grind to a halt."
But Iain Cameron, head of the Research Careers and Diversity Unit at Research Councils UK, said women were beginning to make substantial inroads, even in science subjects that have been dominated by men in the past.
"I think there is an upward trend across the board," he said. "The difference is that certain subjects are starting from such a low base of female academics."
Dame Nancy Rothwell, vice-president for research at Manchester University, said she thought that women were already helping to change the culture and working environment in higher education.
"I think there has been a real attempt to move away from the slightly aggressive approach of the male-dominated culture we have known in the past. Most of my male colleagues are now extremely sensitive to issues such as work/home balance," she said.
But Melissa Lee Price, professor of new media at Staffordshire University, warned that although she had enjoyed female support at her institution, other women could find their progress blocked by "queen bee" syndrome, where female bosses discourage other women from following in their footsteps. "I think a lot of women who get into senior positions feel that they have had to work really hard to get there, so why should they make it any easier for others that want to follow," she said.
THE RISE AND RISE OF WOMEN
In 2005-06, women made up 36.5 per cent of full-time academics, following a gradual and steady rise from 33.4 per cent since 2000-01
Women will form a majority of all academics in 15 years, with their number theoretically rising to 82,000 by 2022, compared to 80,000 male academics by the same year
Women made up 42.5 per cent of ordinary full-time lecturers by 2005-06, rising from 37.8 per cent in 2000-01. If this trend continues, women lecturers will outnumber men by 1,486 in two years
* There were 2,265 female professors in 2005-06, compared with 11,620 male.
The present rate of growth will not put female dons in the majority until the 2070 even though the number of women has grown by 10 per cent a year on average since 2000-01, compared with 3.68 per cent for men.
Source: Hesa, with additional analysis and projections by John Pratt, emeritus professor of institutional studies at the University of East London.
'ONCE YOU GET MORE WOMEN IN SENIOR POSITIONS FEMALE ACADEMICS HAVE A BETTER CHANCE TO PROGRESS'
The choice of subject and even university could determine the speed with which female academics achieve parity with their male colleagues, according to female professors interviewed by The Times Higher .
Sarah Spurgeon, head of engineering at Leicester University, agreed that management strategies could change once men no longer dominated departments or institutions.
But she said subject areas such as hers had barely begun to see any difference in the number of female academics taking up posts at all levels.
She said: "Out of 32 staff, we have just three female academics - and we are much better than most engineering departments.
"I think for us to see a culture change, women who reach senior positions need to draw on their own skills rather than trying to behave like men."
Dundee University has one of the best records in the UK when it comes to appointing female professors.
This year, nine of the 23 professors were women, a record many universities would envy. But last year, when the national percentage of female professors was still creeping into double figures, women outnumbered men, totalling 10 out of the 18 professorial appointments at Dundee.
Writer Kirsty Gunn, who has just become professor of creative writing, said: "I think there is an extremely forward-thinking, funky atmosphere I would not have expected in a university. There's a real sense of experimentation."
Anne Anderson, formerly of Glasgow University, who heads the College of Art and Design, Architecture, Engineering and Physical Sciences, said: "It's relatively unusual to have a woman in charge of engineering and computing.
It's quite a brave choice for the university."
Sir Alan Langlands, Dundee's principal, said: "We are pretty uncompromising in trying to get the best possible, and it so happens that a number of these are women."
Rachel Davey, professor of physical activity and public health at Staffordshire University, said she thought it would be a matter of about five years before there were as many women academics in her subject area as men. "The change is likely to have a significant effect on the working environment," she said. "Once you get more women in senior positions, the management style becomes more consultative and inclusive, and it does mean female academics have a better chance to progress."