Women fighting a male culture

Universities are unfriendly to women, a new report says. And female academics fail to climb the ladder as a result. Lucy Hodges looks at what can be done
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The Independent Online

Ask female scientists why women fail to apply for academic jobs, and therefore don't climb the greasy pole to professor, and they talk openly about old boy networks, stitch-ups and a subtle form of discrimination that works against mothers with children. Men are more self-confident in interviews. They ad-lib when they don't know the answer to a question. Women, by contrast, tend to blurt out an honest answer. "Oh, I don't really know," they'll say. "I'll have to look it up."

Ask female scientists why women fail to apply for academic jobs, and therefore don't climb the greasy pole to professor, and they talk openly about old boy networks, stitch-ups and a subtle form of discrimination that works against mothers with children. Men are more self-confident in interviews. They ad-lib when they don't know the answer to a question. Women, by contrast, tend to blurt out an honest answer. "Oh, I don't really know," they'll say. "I'll have to look it up."

These are some of the findings of research projects at five universities around the United Kingdom funded by the Athena Project, which aims to boost women's presence in science, engineering and technology. Yesterday, a report was published explaining how the universities – Oxford, Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt, Luton and Surrey – plan to make their institutions more friendly to women. "I think this will have an impact on the higher education sector as a whole," says Kate Robinson, Luton University's deputy vice-chancellor (academic). "It raises the profile of the issue. It is very important that senior people in the sector are taking an interest. This is not just a marginal activity but something of central importance."

At Oxford, the researchers looked at why more women weren't applying for jobs. Oxford has 13 per cent of women academics in science, engineering and technology, yet its recruitment pool is much larger. Forty per cent of the 2,000 research staff are women.

When the survey team interviewed women staff some interesting findings emerged. Many women saw universities as being badly managed. "It is difficult to progress up a random structure," said one. "There is no career structure," said another. "If you do win through, it's totally against the odds." No one felt comfortable about working in a predominantly male environment.

The Edinburgh project examined why women were concentrated in research at the expense of lecturing. It found that few people had formalised, written career plans or received support in planning their futures. Research staff complained about the insecurity engendered by short-term contracts, that there were few female role models and that academia did little to "invest" in staff development.

The discrimination is subtle, not overt, according to the women questioned. Seminars and inaugural lectures are held at a time when women with children need to be at home. That means they miss out on interesting speakers, as well as on the post-lecture socialising. Research staff complained that jobs were filled before the interviews took place. "I've been interviewed four times for permanent positions and the latest one was last," said one woman. "But that was completely stitched up."

Professor Kathy Whaler, head of geology and geophysics at Edinburgh, believes contract researchers are neglected and undervalued. "It won't be too long before there will be compulsory training for heads of department and those with contract researchers on their projects," she says.

Surrey was above average for the proportion of women senior staff. In 1989, there were five women academics in engineering at lecturer level. By 2000 there were 14, including one professor and seven readers or senior lecturers. Women were, however, under-represented on most university committees: Surrey found it difficult to keep the women it attracted and promotion for women was seen to be difficult. When questioned, women at the university said promotion was based entirely on research and publications. Although, in theory, weight was given to administration and teaching, in practice this was not seen to be the case. The system was regarded as unstructured and dependent on the head of department.

The emphasis on people being in the office – visibly there for all to see – disadvantaged those with dependents, they thought. "The people who move up the tree in my department are those who are still in the office at 7pm or later," said one Surrey academic.

The university's women's forum is planning two initiatives as a result of the research: a small work-shadowing scheme with nearby universities; and a pairing scheme for junior academics – for example, an experienced colleague could help someone preparing for promotion with their CV and interview technique.

Luton examined the involvement of women in the university's powerful committees. Women complained about the way committee meetings were conducted: sometimes the chairmen were weak; often the loudest voice only was heard; men were allowed to speak for a long time and women would be excluded. Guidelines have been drawn up requiring the chairmen to take responsibility for making people feel included, according to Professor Robinson.

The Herriot-Watt project contained some of the most candid comments from women and appears to have led to far-reaching reform, if the vice-chancellor's comments are anything to go by. The aim was to find out why women academics and researchers left the university and if there were barriers to promotion. It discovered that one-quarter of these women expected to be working somewhere else within five years. Some women complained about the way men behaved. "I generally find female academics more friendly, supportive and concerned with one as an individual," said one. "It is not so much my attitude towards men, but their attitude to women," said another. "They are simply not used to female presence, which is bad for the atmosphere."

Women's knowledge of pro-motion procedures was sketchy. "The promotion prospects of all staff are poor," said one academic. "There have been few promotions in our department in recent years. The procedures have been poorly followed with little or no feedback, which is discouraging to all staff."And women were quite outspoken about the "old boy network". "The upper management group is completely male and perceived like a club," said one woman questioned.

An action plan has been agreed: promotion procedures are to be disseminated widely and people are to be given feedback on why they failed to be gain promotion. A new appraisal scheme is being brought in and women are to be part of all appointment and promotion panels. "As a university which specialises in science, engineering and technology, we're particularly aware of the need to support and encourage the participation and promotion of women," says Professor John Archer, Heriot-Watt's principal. "If we're serious about recruiting more female students in these fields, and we are, then we need to provide them with good role models and support."

Report on the 2000 Development Programme, from The Athena Project, Equality Challenge Unit, 4 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RA

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