Dons protest at Oxford 'sexism'

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OXFORD University is facing a bitter dispute as women dons protesting against what they say is sexism try to wreck the creation of 15 new professorships.

At a confrontation at Congregation - the university's 'parliament' - on 18 May, women academics and liberal male supporters seem likely to win enough votes to block the plans to create the professorships, nearly all destined to be taken up by men.

The university's General Board or administrative committee warned on Friday that chaos would ensue if the dissidents won.

Nominations for the professorships have already been drawn up, referees appointed and candidates' expectations raised, it said. There would be 'serious practical difficulties' if the university was forced into a climbdown.

But the leaders of the protest, who want the money for the professorships to be spent on lower- level posts in competition for which women would have a realistic chance, said the board had only itself to blame.

Despite a public commitment to equal opportunities and repeated warnings about the institutionalised bias in its appointment policy, only three of the 87 academics promoted to the senior posts of professor and reader since 1990 were women. The rebel dons say this year's apparent decision to promote yet more men was the final straw.

Oxford law dons have added to the university's embarrassment, warning that women academics could bring actions for indirect sexual discrimination at industrial tribunals.

In an article published in Oxford Magazine, an official university publication, Sandra Fredman and John Gardner, of Brasenose College, suggested that a formal investigation by the Equal Opportunities Commission would also be possible if the authorities defied expectations by winning the vote. Oxford, they said, was 'reinforcing the disparities between men and women on the promotions ladder'.