Breaking the glass ceiling

Traditionally, universities have been run by men. But that is changing. Lucy Hodges visits Greenwich University, where women bosses are in the majority
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When Baroness Blackstone, the new boss of Greenwich University, visited a company at nearby Canary Wharf last month, she hopped on the Docklands Light Railway. She could have called on the university's chauffeur-driven car to take her in style but she chose the quickest and most efficient method - and the one that would be best for her figure.

When Baroness Blackstone, the new boss of Greenwich University, visited a company at nearby Canary Wharf last month, she hopped on the Docklands Light Railway. She could have called on the university's chauffeur-driven car to take her in style but she chose the quickest and most efficient method - and the one that would be best for her figure.

The choice might surprise those who see Blackstone as a posh and imperious figure, former higher education minister, the person who took on the academics when she was master of Birkbeck College London and who was dubbed a "dark-eyed, evil genius" for her criticisms of the Foreign Office. But Blackstone is unstuffy, energetic and direct, as her colleagues at Greenwich are finding out.

Her appointment brings the number of women heads of university institutions this year up to 16, more than ever before. And it also emphasises a minor revolution that is taking place at Greenwich and, indeed, at many universities around the country. Six of the heads of school are female, out of a total of 11, which means that women are in a majority when it comes to the senior academic managers. That is well ahead of the national average: women comprise 30 per cent of heads of department in new universities such as Greenwich and 15 per cent of heads of department in old universities. Women really are breaking through the glass ceiling. "Things are changing," says Erica Halvorsen, policy adviser at the Equality Challenge Unit. "New initiatives, such as mentoring schemes in particular universities, are having an effect as well."

Blackstone, who has done research on the subject, believes that women are doing better because more of them are finally coming through the system. "Girls were doing pretty well in the education system before this, but their achievement was not matched by their aspiration," she says. "They were not aspiring to the top jobs. I do think that has changed. The new generation of young women is more confident and feisty. They don't feel quite so constrained by society's expectations."

National statistics show that the number of female academics in the UK has increased sharply in recent years. Nearly 40 per cent are now women, according to the Association of University Teachers. But the proportion of women in the senior grades is still low. It is particularly low in the old universities although higher in the new (the former polytechnics). The reason for that is thought to be that new universities are more open and innovative. They have to respond to the marketplace to survive, and they have piled into providing vocational courses in health, education and social care because that was where the gaps were.

Blackstone is not responsible for the number of women in senior positions at Greenwich; they were in post before she arrived. Some of it is attributed to the previous vice-chancellor, Professor Rick Trainor, now at King's College London, who had a reputation for promoting them. Another reason may be Greenwich's subject mix, according to Professor Sarah Palmer, director of the Greenwich Maritime Institute, a university research centre. Greenwich has more health and social care, and education courses, areas in which women tend to better represented.

Dr Liz Bacon is an exception. As head of the school of computing and mathematical sciences at Greenwich, she has excelled in a traditionally male-dominated area. Few universities have women heads of maths and science departments. Greenwich is even more unusual in that 40 per cent of its students in these subjects are women. The university has done a good job with equal opportunities, Dr Bacon says. "If I had not had an even chance, I don't think I would be where I am today. I certainly feel there has been no discrimination towards me at all."

Dr Jane Longmore, head of the school of humanities, believes that the university does not throw up the kind of impediments to women's advancement that might exist at some other universities. "We have had a long-term policy that has been quite enlightened, and not just in the area of gender," she says. "If you look at gender, race and disability, you will find that the university has done well."

Women are not only present in significant numbers in senior academic management, but also at the top level of the administrative office. The university secretary and registrar is a woman, Linda Cording, as is Christine Rose, director of student services and Sue Adams, director of estates.

Blackstone believes she is well served by this army of successful women. Women are well-organised, entrepreneurial and emotionally literate, she says. "They are good at working out who they can rely on and who they can't. These women in senior positions have already had to handle quite tricky management problems."

In addition women are famously good at multi-tasking, juggling a lot of things at one time, according to Professor Clare Mackie, head of Greenwich's new school of pharmacy which it has established with the University of Kent at Medway. "They can manage the operational side, having several balls in the air at once, and at the same time they can see the big picture," she says.

Blackstone is busy doing just that. She is racing around addressing staff on the three campuses about the university's priorities and simultaneously finding the time to make contact with firms in Canary Wharf that might be able to offer students work placements and jobs. Staff say that she makes decisions quickly, a trait that they relish. She has moved Professor John Humphreys from pro vice-chancellor in charge of academic planning and widening participation to be in charge of research, enterprise and regional development, and has advertised his post internally. She intends to make that post a three-year appointment.

At the same time she wants to crack two problems: to get students to re-register properly early on in their second and third years rather than allowing them to do so late; and to introduce a more rigorous regime for payment of fees. Students who don't re-register and don't pay their fees by an agreed time will not be allowed to attend classes. In addition she is planning to slice through the paperwork surrounding appointments to chairs and readerships and to cut back on committees of the academic council.

Her big priority, she says, is to improve job opportunities for the black and Asian students who form such a high percentage of the students on campus and face unacceptable levels of discrimination. Blackstone is determined to do all she can to help them get work. "She is quite inspiring and people are ready to be led," says one insider. "I really think people will follow her where she wants to go."