Women find their way up the ladder

February 24, 2006

Anne Kerr typifies the kind of ambitious and determined woman beginning to make her mark in higher education.

At the age of just 36 and only 12 years since starting out as a research fellow at Edinburgh University, she has moved from a lecturer position at York University to become chair of sociology at Leeds University in one impressive stride.

Melanie Davies, meanwhile, is one of the expanding number of women moving into higher education at a senior level. This month, she moved from the National Health Service to take up an inaugural chair in diabetes medicine at Leicester University.

Staff figures released this week suggest that a growing number of women are enjoying similar successes.

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that the total number of female academics rose by 4.9 per cent from 2003-04 to 2004-05, compared with an increase of only 1.2 per cent in the number of male academics.

Among full-time staff, the proportion of academics who are women increased at all grades. The biggest move was at senior lecturer and senior researcher level, where women's numbers climbed from 5,815 to 6,480. The number of female professors rose from 1,815 to 2,055.

Professor Kerr said prospects for female academics were getting better, but the rate of improvement was still too slow.

She said: "There is still a subtle, covert discrimination through lack of mentoring of women and few opportunities to take up tasks that will enhance their career. Women can find it difficult to be assertive in these situations, and a fear of being stereotyped as a pushy woman is a big reason for this."

Professor Davies said that while there had always been a few exceptional women who climb to prominent positions, there are still many who are talented but find it difficult to get promoted.

She said: "I don't know that there are necessarily more barriers for women, except that it can be tough if you have a family. There are more female role models in academia now than there were five years ago. But you still have to persevere and be focused to get that top job."

Mike Shattock, visiting professor at the Institute of Education in London, said: "The picture is clearly looking brighter for female academics as they are driving up through the system.

"A while ago, there was an increase in female appointments at the lower end of the scale. That is now feeding through as those staff are promoted."

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