A massive gender gap damaging women's chances of having their work entered in the research assessment exercise was revealed this week as the funding council geared up plans for its replacement.
Men were almost 40 per cent more likely than women to be entered in RAE 2008, according to an analysis of selection rates published by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The chance of a permanent female academic being selected for RAE 2008, the final exercise of its kind, was 48 per cent compared with about 46 per cent in RAE 2001. For men, the selection rate was 67 per cent, against 64 per cent in the previous assessment.
A gender gap persists even after factors such as subject area are accounted for, and could be the result of bias, the analysis suggests.
"As with RAE 2001, having accounted for other measurable factors, differences between selection of men and women continue to be observed over the age range 30 to 50, despite the changes between RAE 2001 and RAE 2008 to promote equal opportunities," the Hefce report says.
"While this behaviour may be linked to selection bias resulting from age and gender, it could equally be a result of deeply rooted inequalities in the research careers of men and women."
Hefce is expected to release the final consultation on the research excellence framework, the system due to replace the RAE to allocate about £2 billion in funding annually, in the next few weeks.
This week's report, Selection of Staff for Inclusion in RAE 2008, shows that differences between the sexes were most apparent for scholars aged between 45 and 50.
And women were not the only disadvantaged group. Black academics had a 40 per cent chance of being selected, compared with 60 per cent and above for all other ethnic groups.
This disparity was more pronounced than in 2001, the study says, and is not explained by differences in staff-selection rates at different universities or within specific subject areas.
Meanwhile, academics born outside the UK had a higher chance of selection than UK nationals - 77 per cent against 57 per cent respectively. This is the first time nationality has been examined.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, labelled the report "grim reading" and said it was "deeply concerning" that so few women had been entered.
"The UCU has repeatedly warned that the RAE reinforces gender discrimination, and we have similar concerns over its successor," she told Times Higher Education.
"Unless there is an urgent review of research assessment in this country, we will continue to see these inequalities. Institutions need to be doing far more to meet their legal obligations under the gender-equality duty."
RAE rules blamed
Annette Williams, director of the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science, Engineering and Technology, laid the blame at the feet of the RAE selection process.
"The system adopted (in RAE 2008) - which was to ask staff to argue for inclusion if they felt they had 'personal circumstances that might have affected their research productivity' - laid a great deal of stress on individuals making special cases for themselves," she said.
"Many professional women are keen to demonstrate that family obligations do not negatively impact on their professional work ... This is likely to mean that few of them were willing to use special pleading to be included in the RAE."
Family responsibilities should not be seen as "mitigating circumstances", but as part of life, she added.
The Hefce study coincides with a report from the Equality Challenge Unit, which sets out recommendations on how to ensure equality in the REF.
Suggestions include making it easier for people to disclose personal circumstances, and greater consistency when it comes to panels and sub-panels applying equal-opportunity guidance.
David Sweeney, director of research at Hefce, outlined the action being taken to address the inequalities found in RAE 2008, including working with Vitae - the national organisation for the development of research staff in universities - and giving greater encouragement to institutions to follow best practice.
He said the REF would also ensure more standardisation in how panels approached equal-opportunity issues.
"The REF consultation is expected to provide clearer guidance about career breaks," he added.
A different methodology was used to study equality in RAE 2008 compared with RAE 2001 because no data on the proportion of research-active staff submitted by institutions were available.
The RAE 2008 study looked at selection rates within four "pools" of staff, including permanent academic staff.
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Selection rates for 'typical' permanent academic staff: Men/Women
- 32-year-old lecturer in business and management studies without a PhD: %/23%
- 40-year-old senior lecturer in Earth systems and environmental studies with a PhD: 90%/80%
- 55-year-old professor in education with a PhD: 86%/90%
Source: Hefce report Selection of Staff for Inclusion in RAE 2008, September 2009.