Women Fighting a Male Culture ; Universities Are Unfriendly to Women, a New Report Says. and Female Academics Fail to Climb the Ladder as a Result. Lucy Hodges Looks at What Can Be Done
Hodges, Lucy, The Independent (London, England)
Ask female scientists why women fail to apply for academic jobs, and therefore don't climb the greasy pole to professor, and they talk openly about old boy networks, stitch-ups and a subtle form of discrimination that works against mothers with children. Men are more self-confident in interviews. They ad-lib when they don't know the answer to a question. Women, by contrast, tend to blurt out an honest answer. "Oh, I don't really know," they'll say. "I'll have to look it up."
These are some of the findings of research projects at five universities around the United Kingdom funded by the Athena Project, which aims to boost women's presence in science, engineering and technology. Yesterday, a report was published explaining how the universities - Oxford, Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt, Luton and Surrey - plan to make their institutions more friendly to women. "I think this will have an impact on the higher education sector as a whole," says Kate Robinson, Luton University's deputy vice- chancellor (academic). "It raises the profile of the issue. It is very important that senior people in the sector are taking an interest. This is not just a marginal activity but something of central importance."
At Oxford, the researchers looked at why more women weren't applying for jobs. Oxford has 13 per cent of women academics in science, engineering and technology, yet its recruitment pool is much larger. Forty per cent of the 2,000 research staff are women.
When the survey team interviewed women staff some interesting findings emerged. Many women saw universities as being badly managed. "It is difficult to progress up a random structure," said one. "There is no career structure," said another. "If you do win through, it's totally against the odds." No one felt comfortable about working in a predominantly male environment.
The Edinburgh project examined why women were concentrated in research at the expense of lecturing. It found that few people had formalised, written career plans or received support in planning their futures. Research staff complained about the insecurity engendered by short-term contracts, that there were few female role models and that academia did little to "invest" in staff development.
The discrimination is subtle, not overt, according to the women questioned. Seminars and inaugural lectures are held at a time when women with children need to be at home. That means they miss out on interesting speakers, as well as on the post-lecture socialising. Research staff complained that jobs were filled before the interviews took place. "I've been interviewed four times for permanent positions and the latest one was last," said one woman. "But that was completely stitched up."
Professor Kathy Whaler, head of geology and geophysics at Edinburgh, believes contract researchers are neglected and undervalued. "It won't be too long before there will be compulsory training for heads of department and those with contract researchers on their projects," she says.
Surrey was above average for the proportion of women senior staff. In 1989, there were five women academics in engineering at lecturer level. By 2000 there were 14, including one professor and seven readers or senior lecturers. Women were, however, under- represented on most university committees: Surrey found it difficult to keep the women it attracted and promotion for women was seen to be difficult. …