They condemned vice- chancellors for promoting too few women to professorships and said that urgent action was needed to redress the balance.
The Association of University Teachers (AUT) published a league table designed to "name and shame" the worst offenders. Universities and colleges defended their record arguing the table was years out of date. But they acknowledged that men still far outnumbered women in many academic departments.
The AUT survey, based on figures for 1996, the most recent available, found that men made up 97.5 per cent of professors and 83 per cent of senior lecturers and researchers. Union leaders said female professors were still outnumbered two to one at even the best institutions.
The AUT president, Penny Holloway, said: "We have worked willingly and industriously with vice-chancellors and produced a plethora of good practice guidelines, but worthy words are not enough."
David Triesman, general secretary of the association, singled out art and design courses for criticism. He said: "You can walk through fine art departments and never see a woman. Art departments are some of the most macho, hard-drinking environments you can imagine."
But Professor Elaine Thomas, chairman of the Conference for Higher Education in Art and Design, which represents department heads, said much progress had been made. She said: "Our fine art department has a 50-50 split and I do think things have started to move and fine art has started to make progress.
"When I was a student there was only one female tutor, and when I started work at Ulster I was the only female lecturer. In the early years it was awful and incredibly lonely, but now far more women come into the system and become role models."
She said that a wave of early retirements across universities in the past two years had brought a rapid change in the make-up of departments.
Other universities also attacked the AUT figures. Plymouth University, condemned by the association as having the worst ratio of male to female professors at 43 to 1, said the true figure was now 15 to 1. A spokeswoman said: "There has been a deliberate policy in the university. We were aware that things were not right and we decided to do something about it."
Diana Warwick, chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, which represents university heads, said: "Ever since CVCP's own equal opportunities survey in 1996, we have promoted the importance of action over policy."
t The new university standards watchdog was criticised yesterday as being out of touch and a threat to academic freedom. Mr Triesman said the Quality Assurance Agency "is to be run by people whose experience of teaching is either non-existent or should be exhibited on the Antiques Road Show".