Women crack glass ceiling

June 25, 2004

Women are winning their struggle for promotion in UK universities as men turn their backs on a lecturing career, new figures suggest.

The latest staffing figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that more women than men were promoted to professorships in 2002-03 and that almost twice as many women as men won promotion to senior lecturer grade.

But while more women are breaking through higher education's notorious glass ceiling, the figures also show that the number of men at ordinary lecturer level fell by 625 last year and by 715 in 2001-02.

This has prompted claims that men are being deterred by a decline in the perceived status of higher education, fuelled by low pay and increased regulation.

Andy Pike of the lecturers' union Natfhe said the drop in the number of male lecturers was a "damning indictment of academic pay".

Nevertheless, Mr Pike welcomed the narrowing of the gender divide. "We've described the situation before as not so much a glass ceiling but a cast-iron ceiling on promotion because it has been so difficult for female academics to break through to senior positions," he said.

"Institutions are now much more mindful of the need to comply with equality legislation. It has been a carrot-and-stick approach: persuading them to open up pathways to release the talent of female academics and threatening them with litigation under equal pay and sex discrimination legislation."

The figures show that the number of female professors rose by 175 in 2002-03 compared with an increase of 170 men. The number of women holding the post of senior lecturer rose by 370, compared with an increase of 190 men at the same grade.

Men continued to form the majority at all staff grades in higher education.

Women constituted only 14 per cent of the total number of professors and only 26 per cent of senior lecturers, although the gap had narrowed since 1997-98, when the figures were 9 per cent and 21 per cent respectively.

The gender gap is more pronounced in some disciplines than others. In electrical, electronic and computer engineering, 1.2 per cent of professors were female, while in nursing and paramedical studies the figure was 64 per cent.

Caroline Fox, manager of the Royal Society's Athena programme, which promotes the role of women in science and technology, said: "This raw data backs up what we already know - good women do progress up the grades in academia. However, crucially, these statistics tell us only about the good women who remain in academia - they don't represent those who have left.

"The bright young women who abandon their careers in these subjects because of their experiences in academic institutions are an unforgivable waste both because of the significant investment that the country has made in them and because we are denied their potential future contribution to science, engineering and technology."

Louise Morley of the Institute of Education, University of London said the Hesa statistics were "heartening" but added that women's progress to senior staff positions remained slow.

Professor Morley said: "The question I constantly hear at conferences around the world is why are the inequalities so persistent and so international even in countries with very progressive equal opportunities legislation?

"My answer is that it is the coagulation of factors. It is partly structural, partly attitudinal, partly to do with self-esteem and lack of encouragement.

"There is also a gendered division of labour in many organisations and in many countries, with women often placed on a teaching career trajectory.

This can sometimes make it more difficult for them to establish themselves as researchers."

But Professor Morley agreed that a "changing atmosphere" within academe of increasing regulation and declining professional status was "putting some men off" higher education careers.

"You could have a paradoxical situation where, if the status goes out of the profession, more opportunities open up for women," she said.

Universities UK said that new guidance had recently been published that advised institutions on the best practice for recruitment to senior posts.

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