Helen Mercer was a highly regarded academic who worked as a lecturer in economic history at that international powerhouse, the London School of Economics. She had written an acclaimed book on business history and was considered by an LSE professor to be a "substantial asset". But after suffering a miscarriage, she was rejected for a permanent job; instead, the post went to a less qualified and younger male candidate. The reason, Helen Mercer was told, was that she was expected to have babies in the future and to take career breaks. That could mean she was not as committed to her research as a man. And that might damage the department's performance in the research assessment exercise (RAE).
An employment tribunal found the LSE guilty of sex discrimination, a finding the college is now appealing. Higher education experts believe Helen Mercer's case is simply the tip of an iceberg and that academe, particularly in science and technology, is riddled with sexism and nepotism. Today, the Association of University Teachers releases data, published exclusively in The Independent, that provides prima facie evidence of rampant discrimination in higher education.
Men are twice as likely to have their work entered for the RAE as women. That matters because performance in the research assessment exercise is crucial for anyone who wants to succeed in the university world: it enables you to land jobs, to win promotion and to climb the ladder from humble lecturer to senior lecturer, reader and, finally, to professor. Recognition in the RAE is the acme of an academic's existence.
Women make up 35 per cent of total academic staff but constitute only 23 per cent of the staff entered for the RAE, according to the figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. That means that women are disproportionately under-represented by an average of 12 per cent. "Clearly the research assessment exercise is profoundly flawed and possibly unlawful," says Paul Cottrell, the AUT's assistant general secretary. "We want an assurance from the higher education funding councils that they will monitor the figures in next year's RAE. If they show that discrimination is still widespread, we will challenge them by whatever means we can."
Women aged 35 to 54 are under-represented more than older and younger women. That is significant, says the union, because the majority of women (70 per cent) in academic jobs belong to that age group. The under-representation of women cuts across old and new universities, all the subjects and almost all grades. The bias is particularly acute in computing and modern languages.
The figures confirm what everyone has been talking about for years. A recent report from the European Commission paints a dismal picture of women's position in the sciences. The number of women in senior scientific posts is extremely small throughout Europe. Although half of all undergraduate scientists are female, women do not make it in academic jobs. There is a progressive …