Women must be encouraged to go for top jobs

May 28, 1999

The THES's annual league table of women professors once again presents a dismal picture. The total is crawling up - threefold since the early 1990s - but three times very little is still less than one in ten.

Nor is discrimination confined to promotion. The Bett committee will shortly reveal the full details of the pay gap for women, a gap worsened by the rules which set only a minimum (Pounds 35,000) for professorial salaries.

Women in the UK, who make up a third of academic staff, are not alone in having a hard time breaking into the top ranks. The United States is better, but there too the imbalance is stark. Only 20 per cent of full-time professors in four-year colleges - the equivalent of UK university professors - are women, and their salaries average 79 per cent of men's.

Efforts have been made to improve the position. Five years ago, the Committee of Vice-chancellors set up an equal opportunities group to cajole higher education into doing better. It was chaired by one of the few women vice-chancellors, Anne Wright, now charged with launching the University for Industry. One illustration of the difficulty women face in academe is that the university she ran then, Sunderland, was at the bottom of the league table when this year's statistics were collected, although it has appointed some women professors since.

What can be done? The giveaway is that few of the women who make it to professor have children. As with high-flyers in many professions, the crucial breaks tend to come when people are in their thirties. Promotion depends heavily on publications. Anyone who has taken time out in these years - most of them women - risks being at a disadvantage. Overcoming this will mean taking trouble to encourage women to apply, taking careful account of the quality rather than the quantity of publications, and not penalising people who take longer to reach the professorial threshold. It can be done if people have the will. But have they?

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