Dons find Oxford guilty of sex discrimination: University urged to abandon new professorships in favour of posts improving promotion prospects for women academics

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The Independent Online
DONS of both sexes and all ages found Oxford University guilty yesterday of sex discrimination.

Bald-headed professors and middle-aged lecturers in trainers and jeans joined women dons in Congregation, the university's parliament, to force the authorities to withdraw 15 professorships in favour of providing more lower level reader's posts, which women have a greater chance of obtaining.

They voted 182 to 37 in favour of a resolution demanding that the professorships be abandoned.

Supporters of the resolution said that this year's promotion process, in which pounds 100,000 will now be spent on readerships, will be fairer to women.

The gowned gathering in the Sheldonian Theatre, marked by the usual mortar-board doffing and official processing, also wanted to urge the university to move faster towards equality between the sexes.

Professor David Smith, of Lady Margaret Hall, told them: 'The resolution will send strong signals that they must take much more care to put equal opportunities for the sexes at the centre of their concerns.'

John Gardner, of Brasenose, said the new professors would have been drawn from the pool of existing readers rather than lecturers, the lowest rank of don. Only 5.8 per cent of readers were women, compared with 17.8 per cent of lecturers.

The university claimed to be an equal opportunities employer, he said, but it had turned down the advice of its equal opportunities committee to create readerships. 'These are not the actions of an employer which has its heart in the business of equal opportunities.'

Dons laughed as Jeff Hackney, chairman of the university's board which drew up the professorship proposals, pointed out that the percentage of women professors at Oxford would be 5.1 per cent this October, compared with a national figure of 4.4 per cent.

'I do not accept the argument that the present exercise is discriminatory against women,' he said. 'The association of women's advancement with the holding of a readership exercise is not the quick fix which will restore decades of neglect.'

Professorships conferred internationally recognised titles, which helped to keep good people at Oxford. Now that the polytechnics had become universities and were creating professors, there was even more competition. The board had opted for professorships partly because the last readership exercise had caused such bad feeling among dons, Mr Hackney added.

Vicki Howe, women's officer of the students' union, accused Oxford of putting prestige first and of being an equal opportunities employer second. The university was suggesting 'that a level playing field is a luxury which we can only afford when we are not involved in the cut and thrust of the market place', she said.

Sir Richard Southwood, the university's vice-chancellor, said after the debate that he would like to see the vote as an encouragement to continue an equal opportunities policy, which was already being pursued.

Council, the university's senior executive body, will meet on Monday to decide whether the decision should be put to a postal vote of all 2,500 members of Congregation, which includes all the university's academic and senior administrative staff.

(Photograph omitted)