Open Eye: Sexual equality - still an academic issue

Men still hold most top university jobs. Yvonne Cook talks to three leading OU female professors about the barriers facing women
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The Independent Online
Today more than half the undergraduates in British universities are women, but at the top it's a different story. Women make up a mere 8 per cent of British university professors. Even the OU, strongly committed to equal opportunities since its foundation, can boast only a modest 17.1 per cent of female professors. So what are the obstacles for women hoping to forge a glittering academic career? Are some academic disciplines more "woman friendly" than others? And will the next generation of female academics fare any better? Yvonne Cook asked three of the OU's top women to share their experiences.

Janette Rutterford - Abbey National professor of financial management

"When I began my career at Rothschild's in 1974 I was the only woman in my department - an oddity. When we travelled I had to stay in a separate hotel because the others were at some male-only club. At a dinner for new recruits I was one of two women out of 200 guests.The other woman arrived first, and was shown to the kitchens. After dinner, they offered me a cigar but not brandy."

Professor Rutterford is one of a small handful of women high-flyers in her field - as well as her academic role, she is managing director of a top-notch training and consulting firm, Unique Consultants, a member of The Guardian's economic advisory panel, and a writer, TV and radio broadcaster on financial and economic matters.

She has never experienced any sexism at the OU. But in the finance world things are still far from equal even today, she feels. "There are lots of women in finance now, but mostly in fields that involve being nice to clients - selling, banking, fund management. There are still very few in corporate finance, which is seen as more aggressive.

"Women are poor at office politics. They concentrate on doing a good job. What really matters is getting on with the right people, being in the right place at the right time. Men are much better at this. They treat it as a kind of war."

Jocelyn Bell Burnell - professor of physics

When Jocelyn Bell Burnell went up to Glasgow University in 1961 to read physics, she was the only woman in a class of 50. "If I walked into a lecture last there would be a tremendous roar, and blokes stamping their feet."

It made her all the more determined to succeed in her ambition to become an astronomer. And in 1967, as a Cambridge research student, she played a key role in one of the great discoveries of 20th century astronomy - and sparked off one of the great controversies.

While mapping the skies with a radio telescope Jocelyn noticed an annoying "interference", a whole new class of pulsars that opened up a new branch of astrophysics.

The controversy arose when the Nobel Prize for the discovery went to her supervisor and to her project group head. Many among the scientific community believe that Jocelyn should have had a share in the prize. Some feel she was overlooked because of her sex.

But Jocelyn refuses to be drawn on the subject. "I have done remarkably well out of not getting the Nobel Prize," she says. She believes the pulsar breakthrough helped her to overcome one of the most significant barriers to success for a woman in those days - following her husband's career moves. Wherever he went, she was always able to find a post.

When she joined the OU in 1991, she was favourably impressed: "It is a very woman-friendly place, with all levels of staff aware of equal opportunities. In the OU physics courses we are careful to use inclusive language and be even-handed about examples."

Actively involved in attracting more women into science, she is optimistic that a culture shift can be achieved. "You can see the improvement in the US, where feminist involvement has been longer and stronger. I don't know if women will ever achieve complete parity, but things will get a lot better."

Gillian Cohen - professor of psychology

Caring responsibilities are a bigger obstacle than discrimination to women seeking to rise up the career ladder, according to Professor Gillian Cohen.

She is married, with four children, and chose an academic career above social work because it combined better with family life. Psychology is traditionally popular among women and "relatively free from discrimination", but, she feels, conflicting demands of career and family are still unresolved.

"Flexible working hours and job sharing are helpful, but the present system of relying on childminders often causes women a great deal of worry and emotional distress. It's the "torn in two" syndrome - wanting a career, and wanting to be with your children in the early years."

Caring for ageing relatives still falls disproportionately on women. "We hear a lot about men taking a bigger role in raising children, but much less about their role in caring for older people.

"It is quite usual for a woman to be 10 years behind a man because of domestic responsibilities."

Gillian lives in Oxford because of her husband's job, and her early academic career was as a research fellow, which followed the pattern of successive three-year contracts. "A lot of women academics unfortunately get stuck on short-term contracts, probably because they have less mobility. Your energy is regularly diverted away from research into finding your next grant."

It was the offer of a permanent position that brought Gillian to the OU in 1982. She joined as a lecturer and moved smoothly up the promotion ladder. "I think it's easier progress at the OU because it has always recognised the need to have a proportion of women in each area. And once women have a presence in senior management, it encourages others to have aspirations."