Education: View From Here

Never a day goes by that I am not reminded of just how long it could be before we (women) have real equality
Click to follow
I WAS sitting in a meeting the other day, feeling that something was not quite right, when it suddenly hit me that not only was I the only woman of some dozen or so people present, but I was the only person not using either a laptop or a personal organiser.

There they all were, clicking away and exchanging notes about the potency of their gadgets, making me feel definitely outside this particular boys club. What made me feel even odder was the comment by one of them during a discussion that having me present was a sign of how not all women were held back by the glass ceiling, since I had clearly gone through it. They all seemed rather pleased at this idea and clicked even faster than ever.

Now it may seem nit-picking to object to what was meant to be a compliment, but I'm afraid I didn't take the glass ceiling remark at all well. You see, despite having risen to the dizzy heights of pro-vice-chancellorship, never a day goes by that I am not reminded of how long it could be before we have anything resembling real equality.

Everywhere I turn there are examples of glaring inequity: the minute percentage of women professors, the even smaller percentage of senior women in administration, the miniuscule number of women vice-chancellors, the non-existence of women on major national bodies, such as the Universities and Colleges Employers Association Independent review committee (known as the Bett's Committee) looking into academic pay scales.

When you see a list consisting of such names as Derek, Ken, Mike, Chris, Peter et alia you instantly conjure up a room full of white middle-aged men working away furiously on their laptops, and you can be sure that they're not overly concerned about how to juggle a profession with a family.

Though to give some men credit, they do want to talk about equal opportunities. In one meeting, the chairman looked around the room (I was sitting opposite him) and said with all sincerity that something needed to be done to involve more women. "Look at us," he said apologetically. "We're all white middle- class males in here."

"Speak for yourself," I retorted, but I was left feeling uneasy again.

Had he simply not noticed me? Or had I become so integrated, so much one of the boys that I really did seem male to them? I lay awake worrying that I might somehow be becoming invisible.

I haven't felt this agitated about equal opportunities issues since I cast aside my underwear in the early Seventies. These days, despite being strapped in with heavy elastic and synthetic whalebone to cope with my more opulent figure, I think back to early women's liberation with nostalgia. We believed then things would change.

This uneasiness is not just the result of reading the new book by my colleague Germaine Greer, who doesn't believe things have improved much at all. It comes rather from a sense that despite apparently going through the mythical glass ceiling, I don't see too much evidence of anything changing in any significant way. The funding councils are still dominated by men, the people in the most powerful positions in higher education are men, and those few of us females who tread the corridors of power do so without many companions.

It's also difficult to raise equal-opportunities issues in male-dominated meetings without becoming strident and being perceived as partisan, thereby alienating the very people whose support you need. And, ultimately, does the apparent "success" of a few token women serve to drive changes forward, or does it actually have the opposite effect of enabling everyone to relax and think the struggle is over?

Twenty years ago I would have seen this state of affairs as a conspiracy. These days, I see it rather as a sad indication of how slowly change happens. There is evidence that things are moving more positively for younger women, helped also by younger men, so perhaps in another 20 or 30 years this kind of lamentation will just seem ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the way forward seems to be to hone up one's techniques of ironic repartee and maintain a sense of humour. "Too much testosterone in this room," remarked one senior academic in a particularly aggressive meeting - to which I replied that there was a fair amount of oestrogen in my corner, a comment that encountered laughter, albeit of a slightly nervous kind.

I'm working now on a few jokes about personal organisers while waiting for the report from the Bett's Committee, where I bet there are laptops aplenty.

We won't have equal opportunities in higher education until a few Janets, Gillians, Annes and Jennys get in there to handle the money alongside, or instead of, the lads, though that looks about as likely right now as the fountain pen coming back into fashion.

The writer is Pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Warwick