Backwards at coming forward?

More women are becoming top academics, but their progress is slow. Lucy Hodges reports
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British universities - for so long bastions of male power and prestige - are beginning to change. Figures being released this month show a small but noticeable rise in the number of women professors, up from 5.5 per cent two years ago to 7.3 per cent today.

The statistics, which coincide with a new book on women academics, Beyond the Glass Ceiling, provide some comfort to those who have campaigned to ensure that professorial chairs are not occupied exclusively by male bottoms. But the figures are pretty pathetic when set in context: more women than men are now graduating from British universities and 27.6 per cent of academics are women. "I do think things are getting better," says Gillian Slater, vice-chancellor of Bournemouth University. "But it would be more heartening if things moved faster."

In her introduction to the book, to be published next week, Helena Kennedy, QC, chancellor of Oxford Brookes University, asks why the world of academe should lag so far behind other fields of endeavour. Is it because women scholars are insufficiently thrusting or because they work in different ways or have different priorities from men? Or is it because the academic system works against women? "The fiction that the tests of excellence are neutral and that merit is an objective assessment is perpetually fostered," she writes.

The women academics interviewed in the book, who have demonstrated brilliance and originality in their fields, think women are bashful about coming forward. Carole Jordan, Britain's most senior woman astronomer and one of the new cohort of Oxford professors announced earlier this month, says: "Some women are still not very good at pushing themselves forward. They don't have the self-confidence to believe they are as good as everyone else. I have colleagues who deserve professorships but didn't get them in the latest round."

It took Professor Jordan years to win the title she deserved. The first woman president of the Royal Astronomical Society, she was turned down for a readership at Oxford the day after she had been elected to the Royal Society, Britain's highest scientific honour. Like many other women scholars, she will not answer questions about personal discrimination but she is gratified that some women at Oxford are finally winning recognition.

The latest 162 professorial appointments at Oxford have brought the number of women professors up to 30, from a miserable low of four in 1989. Women now make up 8.1 per cent of Oxford professorships, above the national average, and Professor Jordan thinks numbers will continue to rise. "If there are reasonable numbers of people being given these titles, it will help women to apply," says Jordan. "They will see it is not so unusual to be made a professor."

It is perhaps no coincidence that Professor Jordan is childless. Without a family she has been able to devote herself to her work. Another Oxford professor, Susan Greenfield, who was also one of the 162 new Oxford appointments, is not a mother either. A leading researcher into Parkinson's disease, she says in the book: "Some of my friends seem to manage a career and children all very well but I personally wouldn't have been able to."

That is a point made by Baroness Warnock, the eminent philosopher and former Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge. Increasingly people are being appointed to chairs on the basis of their publications, as in America. Women, however, come off badly because they tend to publish less material and to do so later than men, she says. Women can combine academic career and family, but it requires superhuman effort to do both and publish books and articles.

Professor Uta Frith, senior scientist in the Medical Research Council's Cognitive Development Unit, admits she might have got further if she hadn't had children and could have moved about and worked longer hours. She adds: "But possibly my whole age and generation and background would have never allowed me to bid for those jobs. I'm not a feminist, but I now see my role as to encourage younger women to do that."

The book reveals that those women academics who have succeeded have sometimes had rather unconventional career patterns. Ann Oakley, the sociologist, who has her own research unit and a personal chair at London University, never thought of herself as having a career. In fact she is horrified at the notion of a nine-to-five job. "I have thought of myself as doing the things I wanted to," she says. "In terms of progressing through the academic world I have not done things which would have got me a top job early on."

'Beyond the Glass Ceiling', edited by Sian Griffiths, Manchester University Press in conjunction with the 'Times Higher Education Supplement', pounds 9.99. The book is based on 'THES' articles.