Higher Education: Wanted: a better degree of equality: Only a third of postgraduate students are women. Why? Stephen Pritchard reports

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The Independent Online
Since 1992, the number of women entering undergraduate courses has been close or equal to the number of men, raising hopes that universities are now places that offer equal opportunities to all, regardless of gender. But at the postgraduate level, equality does not exist.

The University Statistical Record shows, in its 1993-94 figures published this week, a UK total of 34,391 full-time students registered for a higher degree by research. Of these, 23,279 are men and 11,112 are women, a slight improvement on the 1992-93 figures.

Many universities and colleges are examining their recruitment, retention and promotion practices to ensure that they are based on merit, not on gender or race, as research by the Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals' Commission on University Career Opportunity shows. But with a PhD the entry requirement for most academic posts, it will be difficult to improve the gender ratio among university staff unless more women can be encouraged to take a higher degree.

No single factor explains why numbers of women research students have not risen in line with female undergraduate levels, although women's under-representation in the sciences is one cause.

At the undergraduate level, men still dominate in the physical sciences, maths and especially engineering, and these subjects offer more PhD places than the arts and humanities, where female participation is higher. But even in biology, where women are in the majority as undergraduates, men predominate in research degrees. This is also the case in the social sciences and humanities.

Womens' aspirations towards motherhood also play a part. Taking time out to have a child during a PhD is rarely an option, and academic career structures, especially short-term contracts, make it hard to build up eligibility for maternity leave. Many women take unpaid career breaks and when they try to return to academia, they can find they are too old to apply for some grants or posts, such as junior research fellowships.

'If you want a family, when do you have it?' asks Lee Tunstall, who is reading for a PhD in history at Cambridge and is access officer for the National Postgraduate Committee, the representative body for postgraduate students. 'There are few career break options.'

The male atmosphere of many academic departments and university living conditions may also be factors. Nor are women helped by the lack of female peers and tutors. As Kate Sugden, a second-year PhD student in telecommunications at Aston University, points out: 'We lack role models: there are no women employed in this department apart from two new research assistants. I've been to four universities and have only met one female lecturer. You never imagine yourself as a grey, middle-aged man.'

The lack of senior female academics makes finding a supervisor and an accommodating research environment harder for women, believes Mary Evans, professor of women's studies at Kent University.

'The crucial relationship for a postgraduate is with her supervisor,' she says. 'If you are going to go into graduate work, you have to get into a network. It's much more difficult to find a female network,' she explains.

Professor Evans thinks the terms and conditions of academic jobs may discourage some women from taking on PhDs. 'Women tend to look at an academy in terms of a job, and there are few jobs and it's badly paid,' she says. 'The rewards are very far from immediate.'

Groups such as Awise, the Association of Women in Science and Engineering, are addressing the issue of networking. Awise aims to provide mutual support and advice for female academics, and is also open to postgraduates. On the government side, the Office of Science and Technology is setting up a development unit that will look at ways in which an academic career can be made more flexible, and so more open to women.

But some academics feel that the whole system of university teaching will need to change if women are to play a greater role in academia. Traditional methods of teaching and assessment can suit men better than women. Government figures show that men are more likely than women to gain first-class degrees - which are the passports to research funding in most subjects.

(Photograph omitted)

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